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PC makers reconfigure with new Intel chipsets

Desktop machines include a Dell device the size of a phone book that can hide behind a flat panel.

Desktop computers took on new forms on Monday, as they incorporated the latest chips from Intel.

Intel's Express 915 and Express 925 chipsets, along with six additional Pentium 4 chips, hit the market in PCs on Monday, sprouting a number of new desktops, including a smaller model for businesses and more multimedia-savvy machines for consumers.

As previously reported, the new chipsets mark an important rewiring of the insides of PCs, because they incorporate a variety of technological enhancements, including faster memory and buses, which carry data inside the PC, and higher-performance graphics and audio.

Although most desktops resulting from Intel's chipset launch will take on familiar forms--such as towers--several sport designs that boost their multimedia capability or help them hide away more easily. Most of the new models start at $800 to $1,100, making them relatively high-end machines.

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Hewlett-Packard's Media Center m1000, for one, offers a mount for a digital camera on its top. And as part of its front, the PC has a bay that fits an external, portable hard drive. The drive, which HP calls its Personal Media Drive, can be used to store or back up data and to share data between computers via a universal serial bus connector. HP's m1000, which will come with a variety of choices of Pentium 4 processors, will hit retail stores on July 18 and start at $1,099 before rebates, the company said.

For its part, Dell began offering several new desktops on Monday, including the Optiplex SX280, a machine that's about the size of a phone book, for businesses. The desktop, which starts at about $800, can be mounted out of the way, including beneath a desk or on the back of a Dell flat panel display, using a special stand.

Like others that use either of the new 900 series chipsets, the PCs will incorporate several features designed to increase their performance. Those features include:

• DDR 2 memory, a faster yet less power-hungry successor to today's standard DDR SDRAM (double data rate synchronous dynamic RAM). Right now, DDR 2 modules come in speeds up to 533MHz. Intel left open an option to continue using standard DDR as well. HP's m1000 continues using standard DDR, for example, while Dell's new Dimension desktops use DDR 2.

• PCI Express, a higher-bandwidth interface for add-in cards, which will initially serve to replace the graphics card port in the new desktops.

• Higher-performing graphics and audio. The 900-series chipsets include Intel's high-definition audio, which adds features such as surround sound. Meanwhile, one version of the 915 Express, the 915G, will come with the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900, an improved graphics engine Intel says can handle video games.

• Support for multiple hard drives. Although not an entirely new feature, Intel beefed up its support of RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) for Serial ATA interface hard drives by combining RAID's abilities to use multiple disks to boost performance and back up data in a feature it calls Intel Matrix Storage Technology.

Later this year, new PCs using the 900-series chipsets will also be able to serve as wireless access points, eliminating the need for a wireless router. The optional feature will start to appear in PCs during the third quarter but isn't likely to proliferate until 2005, according to Intel, which is still testing its desktop wireless cards.

The new chipsets will spawn several relatively new desktop categories as well, including the so-called entertainment PC, a computer designed to look like a home electronics device. HP, for one, is expected to add an entertainment PC to its product line later this year, although PC makers mainly got started with more traditional-looking machines on Monday.

Dell added several business and consumer models based on the new chipsets, ranging from the Dimension 4700, which starts at just more than $900, to the Dimension XPS, PC gaming system that will start at about $2,600, according to Dell. The XPS will incorporate the most new features of the bunch, including up to 4GB of DDR 2 and three 400GB hard drives.

IBM got the ball rolling with its ThinkCentre A51p desktop, which starts at $829 and uses the Intel Express 915. The company will add the new chipset to other models, including its small desktop, over time, a representative said.

Gateway plans to base several desktops, including both Gateway-brand and eMachines-brand models for consumers, on the Intel Express 915 chipset, the company said.

The new chipsets and processors represent "the most significant platform in 12 years," Bill Siu, general manager of the Intel Desktop Platforms group, said at a preview event last week.

From a historical perspective, Dell's newest Optiplex desktops offer a performance improvement of up to 500 percent, compared with past models, and cost about $200 less, said Indraj Gill, director of worldwide marketing for Optiplex desktops at Dell.

However, several reviewers who sampled the chipsets were left wanting more. While they agreed that the features added by Intel were significant, at least two said they were looking forward to additional developments, such as DDR 2 with less latency, or delay in data transmissions, along with the faster 1,066MHz front-side bus--the main channel for data to and from the processor--expected from Intel later this year.

"Intel's new product line (is) not much more than boring. We are seeing no advantages to using their new 925X and 915G chipsets," Kyle Bennett, proprietor of the enthusiast Web site Hard OCP, wrote in a review. "There is some great technology in Intel's new platforms; that greatness is just not going to be realized today."

"There is a lot to like in all the new features and technologies that Intel has introduced with the new chipsets," wrote Wesley Fink, a reviewer for AnandTech. "We just wish that there were more real performance gains to get excited about."

Intel's six new Pentium 4 chips, including its fastest-yet 3.6GHz Pentium 4 560, sport a new 775-pin socket that attaches them to the motherboard, or main circuit board of a PC. The socket was introduced with the 900-series chipset.

The chips also include a 2.8GHz Pentium 4 520, 3GHz Pentium 4 530, a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 540, a 3.4GHz Pentium 4 550, and a 3.4GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition processor for game systems. They list for prices ranging from $178 to $999, according to Intel.