Rambus-based PCs set to debut at Comdex

PCs containing next-generation Rambus memory will be unveiled at the Las Vegas trade show, although sales could be fairly negligible this year.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
PCs containing next-generation Rambus memory will make their debut at the Comdex trade show, sources said, although sales could be fairly negligible this year.

Several major PC makers, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Micron Electronics, and Dell Computer are expected to release business and/or consumer desktops containing high-speed memory chips based on the Rambus design during the high-tech convention, which begins November 15 in Las Vegas.

These PCs will contain Pentium III processors and 820 chipsets from Intel. IBM, according to sources close to the company, is expected to release a Rambus-based PC for around $1,300 and a workstation, with Rambus memory and the 820 chipset, for close to $2,000.

An Intel spokesman would not comment on the prospective release date, but said that final validation is taking place and that the 820 chipset will be out by the end of the year.

Several sources said that the systems would come out on November 15 or possibly earlier. At the latest, Rambus systems will come out before Thanksgiving, sources said.

Sources close to HP said the company is anxious to get its Rambus systems out the door, likely before the end of November. HP in October had planned to start shipping its Rambus-only corporate PC, the Vectra VL600, leaving a hole in its product line.

Rambus has emerged as one of Silicon Valley's most talked about, and most controversial, companies because of various delays, technical glitches, and marketing snafus that have disrupted the product plans for a number of companies. Rambus has designed a form of computer memory, called RDRAM, that supporters say will improve overall PC performance because it will deliver data to the processor at a much faster rate.

The company does not make memory chips. Rather, it licenses the design to memory makers and chipset manufacturers and collects royalties from these companies. Because of the promised performance benefits, Intel chose to base its future architectures around Rambus a few years ago.

Rambus memory costs more than standard SDRAM , however, which has not sat well with PC makers and memory manufacturers. Memory manufacturers, in fact, were largely reluctant to invest in making Rambus chips. Intel eventually invested $500 million in Micron Technology in late 1998, and followed that with a $100 million investment in Samsung, so that the companies would purchase the necessary manufacturing and testing equipment.

Then, in 1999, Intel delayed the 820 chipset, the component which allows the PC to "speak" to Rambus memory, from June to September, and delayed it again in September because of technical glitches. The September delay turned out to be both costly and highly embarrassing, because Intel only made the decision to postpone the release of the 820 a few days before PC makers were slated to start selling new systems. (See related story.)

As a result, PC makers had complete systems that they could not sell because of the bugs discovered late in the cycle. HP and Dell, in fact, had already begun to speak publicly about their Rambus PCs. Samsung soon after suspended manufacturing of Rambus memory. The debacle likely caused the industry to lose $100 million in motherboards that suddenly had to be replaced, estimated Ashok Kumar, an analyst with US Bancorp Piper Jaffray.

Partially as a result, some companies are taking a cautious approach on these systems. Some manufacturers will release new Pentium IIIs containing the 820 chipset but will fill the systems up with standard SDRAM. Other companies, such as NEC Computer Systems, say they will gradually roll out Rambus systems.

All of these computers will contain a motherboard with only two memory slots. Earlier Rambus/820 motherboards contained three memory slots, which was the problem.

Rambus memory will likely bring a necessary performance edge to PCs.

"People are going to need higher-performance, higher-bandwidth memory systems," said Shawn Willett, an analyst with the Aberdeen Group. Still, Willett added, the lack of a third memory slot will dent some of the capabilities of these machines. With a third slot, system designers or IT managers can tweak memory configurations to optimize specific types of performance.

The launch of Rambus will also allow Intel to close the gap in performance with systems based around AMD's Athlon processor, said Dean McCarron, an analyst at Mercury Research.