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PC makers struggle with Coppermine strategy

PC makers face hard decisions as they prepare new PC systems around Intel's Coppermine processor.

PC makers face hard decisions as they today unveil new PC systems around Intel's Coppermine processor.

Coppermine, an enhanced version of the Pentium III processor that will run at speeds from 600 MHz to 733 MHz, is set to breathe new life into notebooks, workstations, and servers.

Intel is today unveiling the new Coppermine chips, as part of a massive rollout of 15 new Pentium III chips. The launch includes new desktop processors and the first mobile Pentium III chips.

But Coppermine's impact on desktop systems is tarnished by the delay of Intel's 820 chipset, leaving gaping holes in many PC product lines. The 820 was delayed at the last minute, which forced PC makers to scramble.

The 820 is a companion part that will allow PCs to use next-generation Rambus memory. Combined, a 733-MHz Coppermine and Rambus memory will allow Intel PCs to approximate the performance of the fastest Athlon PCs, analysts have said. Without the combination of the 820 and Coppermine, performance is lower.

For lacking the 820, also known as Camino, many PC manufacturers are making the hard decision of whether to use the 810e Intel chipset, which contains integrated graphics, the older 440BX chipset, or going with a competing solution from rival Via Technologies.

Dell and, to a more limited degree, Compaq will sell Coppermine systems with the 810e. The 810e comes with a speedy 133-MHz system bus, which serves as the data conduit for the procesor. The 810e offers equivalent performance to the 820. However, the 810e comes with integrated graphics, which don't provide the same level of performance that can be achieved with separate graphics chips.

Surprisingly, many PC manufacturers are opting to stick with the older 440BX chipset, which comes with 100 MHz, slower than what the Via or 810e solutions can bring with their 133-MHz bus, despite the faster bus's ability to deliver better performance.

"There are a number of companies that are extending their commitment to [440] BX and have obtained buy-in from Intel to keep supplying it for awhile," said IDC analyst Roger Kay, who pointed out Intel had already planned to support the chipset through the first quarter or longer.

"I don't know if it's an extension beyond that, but nonetheless the amount of [440] BX they're going to be using is greater than it would have been," said Kay

Compaq, Gateway, and Hewlett-Packard will all stick with the 440BX on commercial PCs, and Gateway will even go with the chipset on consumer systems.

Meanwhile, HP, IBM, and Micron all plan to use Via's chipset on some commercial and consumer PCs.

"We're being forced to make product decisions when we should be shipping the systems out for sale," said one PC maker, who asked not to be identified. "This put us in a very bad situation, at least with our consumer customers."

Some PC makers worried the confusion over the 820 delay might cause consumers and some corporate users to push back new purchases.

"If you're buying a new PC, why would you want to get one now when you know something better is coming along?" asked another PC manufacturer who asked not to be identified. "If I was a customer I would wait to take advantage of the 133-MHz bus, faster graphics and Rambus memory."

HP was one of the company's burned by the 820 delay. A week before Intel's intended 820 announcement, HP unveiled the Vectra VL600, a Rambus-only commercial PC. That system, which would otherwise be shipping, is delayed indefinitely.

Among HP's new Vectra PCs is the VEi8, a 600-MHz Pentium III system with 64-MB SDRAM, 13.5-GB hard drive and 48X CD-ROM; it will sell for $1,499.

HP's Pavilion 8595c will support Intel's fastest processor, the 733-MHz Pentium III, and includes 128MB of SDRAM, 32-GB Ultra hard drive, HP CD Writer Plus CD-RW drive, 8X DVD drive, an NVDIA Vanta TNT2 3D AGP graphics card, 10/100baseT networking , and 56K modem for $2,399.

Gateway's GP-S eries desktops, using the 440BX, will be available with 600-MHz and 700-MHz Pentium III processors, starting at $1,649 and $2,099, respectively.

Compaq will use the 810e and 440BX chipsets in its commercial Deskpro EN and Deskpro EP systems in support of the Coppermine processors. Systems start at $1,400 with a 17-inch monitor.

Compaq also plans one new model, the Deskpro AP240, a hybrid PC and workstation. The new Deskpro, using the 440BX chipset, comes with a 700-MHz Pentium III processor, 128MB of RAM, 9-GB wide-ultra SCSI drive, ATI Rage Pro 2X-AGP graphics accelerator, and 10/100 networking for $2,600.

IBM will support 600-MHz, 667-MHz and 733-MHz Pentium III processors on its 300PL and 300GL commercial PCs. Base systems will offer the 133-MHz front-side bus, using the Via chipset. New models will also feature an optional fingerprint reader for added security.

The entry-level 300GL and PL systems feature a 533-MHz Pentium III processor, 64MB of RAM, and 13.5-GB hard for the GL and 10.1-GB hard drive for the PL, for $1,279 and $1,390, respectively.

Micron, will continue support for the Via chipset on its consumer PCs. The company will offer on Monday a Millennia Max with 733-MHz Pentium III processor, 64MB of RAM, 13.6-GB hard drive, 40X CD-ROM drive, 32-MB nVidia geForce 4X-AGP graphics card, 56k modem, Office 2000 Small Business Edition, and 17-inch monitor for $1,999.

Micron is also looking closely at the 840 chipset, which Intel will introduce on Monday primarily for use in workstations and servers.

"The 840 is fast as hell," Micron spokesperson Ken Knotts said. Micron is considering using the chipset on its ClientPro commercial PCs. "The performance advantage you get for the price you pay is worth it, and fits in nicely for the computing needs of corporate and government users."

Micron did not see the same price-performance advantage on the 820, which is one reason it opted for the competing solution from Via.