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Pentium 4 computers hit the market

Nearly all the major PC manufacturers will release the first desktops built around the Pentium 4, a new microprocessor from Intel expected to form the bedrock of the company's business.

Computers containing the Pentium 4 went on sale Monday. Let the kvetching begin.

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The pros and cons of Pentium 4
Linley Gwenapp, principal analyst, Linley Group
Nearly all the major PC manufacturers released the first desktops built around the Pentium 4, a new microprocessor from Intel that will form the bedrock of the company's business for the next few years.

But just as important as new PCs is that Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel, along with several review sites, will release performance benchmarks for the chip that should keep analysts and computer enthusiasts busy for weeks.

Gartner analyst Kevin Knox says mainstream users probably will not need the additional power and features of the new chip, but high-end users may want to consider immediate adoption.

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In recent years, the debate over which company makes better processors--Intel or Advanced Micro Devices--has in many ways surpassed the Windows vs. Macintosh conflict as the never-ending topic of debate in the PC world.

Chat room discussions range from intricate arguments over performance to name-calling screeds.

One area of concern for Intel is dual-processor systems. The P4 does not currently work in the two-processor configurations popular on workstations or in low-end servers. The capability is not expected until at least second quarter 2001, when Intel also delivers a Xeon version of P4, potentially creating big holes in high-performance system product lines.

While a number of companies will release PCs for the business market, most Pentium 4 computers initially will be targeted at consumers. Dell Computer, for instance, will release the Dimension 8100, a new model optimized for home theater, according to Dell executives at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas. The 8100 will come with a Sony Trinitron monitor, a subwoofer, and DVD and CD-RW drives. The system is certified for THX sound by George Lucas' Lucasfilm. Like a lot of stereo equipment, the case will be silver and black, rather than Dell's usual beige or gray.

Compaq Computer, meanwhile, will offer the 1.4-GHz and 1.5-GHz Pentium 4 on its Presario 7000T line, according to sources familiar with the situation. New models will be available for direct sales Monday, starting around $1,900. Retail systems will appear sometime later.

Gateway will offer three consumer systems: the Performance 1400, 1500 and 1500XL. The first will come with the 1.4-GHz Pentium 4 and the other two with the 1.5-GHz processor. Prices will start at $1,999.

IBM will incorporate the chip into its NetVista PCs and single-processor workstations. Like Compaq and Dell, IBM will use the product refresh as an opportunity to support DVD-RAM, one of several formats for recording data or video on DVDs.

AMD managed to break out of the budget PC market with Athlon, its desktop PC chip that surpassed the Pentium III in terms of performance. The company's share of the $1,000 to $1,500 PC market at retail went from 3 percent in May to 22.3 percent in September, according to Stephen Baker, an analyst at PC Data.

Debuting at 1.4 GHz and 1.5 GHz, the Pentium 4 will be faster than the speediest Athlon on the market, which tops out at 1.2 GHz. The new chip is designed to provide a substantial boost when it comes to multimedia and Internet-centric applications.

"The Pentium 4 will deliver about 25 percent faster performance in MP3 encoding, 50 percent in video encoding, 33 percent in 3D graphics and 44 percent in games like 'Quake 3 Arena'" over the fastest 1-GHz Pentium III, Paul Otellini, general manager of the Intel Architecture Group, said in late October.

Analysts have in general predicted that these types of applications will benefit. On the other hand, people may not see huge improvements when it comes to standard applications such as word processing.

In addition, Pentium 4 systems won't be cheap and initially will work only with Rambus memory, an expensive technology that inspires arguments almost as heated as the Intel-AMD debates. A review of current consumer computers from Hewlett-Packard, Gateway and Compaq shows that Athlon computers are often less expensive or come with bigger hard drives or faster chips than equivalent Pentium III systems, let alone those with Pentium 4s.

Pentium 4 boxes will also be big because of the insulation required. The chip consumes an average of 50 watts of power when in operation, according to Intel. This is less than the 60 watts some of the first Athlon chips consumed but more than standard Pentium IIIs consume.

"I don't agree with the strategy of offering these large, large chassis," said Technology Business Research analyst Brooks Gray. Despite the Pentium 4's need for a bigger box, Gray said the trend is toward smaller PCs, either in the office or at home.

Initially, the Pentium 4 will appear only in desktops. "Foster," an enhanced version of the chip for dual-processor servers, will come out in the second quarter of 2001. A chip for multiprocessor servers will come out in the third quarter, an Intel representative said. Notebook versions won't occur in the near term, either.

"The infrastructure isn't quite in place for the server side," said Dean McCarron, an analyst at Mercury Research. As for desktops, "the consumer side can take it quicker."