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New Alpha chip hits 533 MHz

Digital has a new low-cost Alpha processor running at up to 533 MHz and hopes to make it the chip of choice for Windows NT.

Digital Equipment (DEC) has unveiled a new low-cost Alpha microprocessor running at speeds up to 533 MHz in an attempt to make the Alpha architecture the technology of choice for Windows NT desktop users.

For the first time, Digital can boast that high-performance Alpha systems will be available for as low as $2,600. Typically, Alpha-processor-based computers have commanded a premium for their performance, so they have been limited to relatively small niche markets.

But Digital is moving to change this in the face of increased competition from both the PowerPC camp and Intel. Exponential is slated to roll out a 533-MHz PowerPC processor in the second quarter and Intel is expected to bring out 300-MHz processors later this year.

In order to pave the way for a low-priced Alpha desktop market, Digital will offer a new low-cost AlphaPC 164X motherboard--the main circuit board in a computer--for systems running Windows NT. Systems using this board and the 21164PC processor will be available for less than $2,600, according to the company. This makes them extremely competitive in price with personal workstations from vendors of Pentium Pro systems such as Compaq and Hewlett-Packard.

Workstations are powerful computers used in fields such as engineering, science, and multimedia content creation. A new category of workstations, dubbed personal workstations, generally uses Intel Pentium Pro processors and runs Windows NT, while traditional workstations run Unix and use RISC processors such Sun's Sparc chip. A recent report from IDC Research says that in 1996 personal workstation shipments grew 38 percent worldwide; it expects that trend to continue.

The Alpha 21164PC, which was designed with Mitsubishi, will be available in 400-, 466- and 533-MHz versions.

While the Alpha processor will offer better performance than Intel processors for applications written specifically for the Alpha platform, some of the Alpha processor's performance advantage will be diluted if users wish to run programs originally written for Intel and Intel-compatible processors. For these non-Alpha applications, Digital must use a program that emulates or translates Intel software applications. This emulation and translation is a relatively cumbersome process that can affect performance.

However, Digital claims that performance for its translator can equal or exceed that of an Intel system running the same software.

The processor will include additions to the instruction set that will allow it to increase performance of MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 video and videoconferencing applications, according to the company.

Digital says the 21164PC processor will be available in volume in the summer of 1997. The prices range from $295 for the 400-MHz version to $495 for the 533-MHz version in quantities of 1,000. An accompanying motherboard design will be available in the third quarter of 1997.