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IBM adopts Cyrix 6x86 chip

Big Blue becomes the first top-tier U.S. PC manufacturer to adopt Cyrix's 6x86 processor, offering proof that Cyrix continues to make headway with its chips.

IBM (IBM) has become the first top-tier U.S. PC manufacturer to adopt Cyrix's (CYRX) 6x86 Pentium-compatible processor, offering proof that Cyrix continues to make headway with its processors.

IBM is using the processor in the Aptiva E40, a full-featured consumer PC that is being sold through Radio Shack into the education market.

The system comes with a Cyrix 6x86 chip rated at 166 (performance equivalent to a 166-MHz Pentium), a CD-ROM drive, a monitor, and a printer, among other features, for $1,858.

Although Cyrix (CYRK) has said it will primarily concentrate on providing microprocessors for sub-$1,000 devices, it is by no means throwing in the towel on the mainstream PC market that the 6x86 and the 6x86MX are targeted at. The 6x86MX is an Intel Pentium MMX-compatible processor, while the 6x86 is a "classic" non-MMX processor.

A series of improvements will appear in the company's 6x86 MX microprocessor over the next year and a half, said Stan Swearingen, director of product management at Cyrix. These include processor speeds of 400 MHz and advanced architectures.

A new architecture may come from working in tandem with rival AMD. The two companies, as well as a number of Taiwanese board manufacturers, are discussing ways to develop a common "dual bus" architecture, Swearingen said, to avoid a divide-and-conquer situation engendered by Intel's Pentium II design.

The dual bus architecture adds a second bus, or data path, to boost performance, similar to what Intel has done with the Pentium II processor.

"We're starting the process," Swearingen said. "If AMD does it its own way, and Cyrix does its own, it is clear that the market will belong to [the Pentium II] slot 1."

Slot 1 is one of the architectural innovations behind the Pentium II. The slot 1 design allows the Pentium II to run a separate bus for cache memory, which in turn increases overall chip performance.

It is also a heavily guarded secret. Neither AMD nor Cyrix, which use the older "socket 7" design developed for Pentium chips, has a license to manufacture slot 1 chips.

In any event, Swearingen said that Cyrix has no plans on trying to copy the Pentium II's slot 1 design. "By the time you reverse engineer it, they can change the definition by four points. You'd always be behind," he said.

New iterations of Cyrix's high-end chip will start to come out in the fourth quarter, he said.

Faster bus speeds are also coming. A 100-MHz bus will come in the second quarter of 1998, Cyrix said. During the same period, Cyrix will ramp up the 6x86MX (MMX) capabilities to 266 MHz and 300 MHz. "A 400-MHz is very doable," he added, along with a possibility of a 450-MHz chip.

A surprise merger with National Semiconductor last month breathed life into Cyrix and brought the company a recent spate of positive news. Under a new strategy announced by National CEO Brian Halla, the combined companies will primarily strive to build "system in a chip" MediaGX processors, bits of silicon that combine graphics, audio, video, processing power, and more onto a single chip. These chips will go into low-end computers, NetPCs, set-top boxes, and home devices.

Publicity aside, analysts still see an uphill battle for the company. Recent Intel price cuts likely mean that Pentium MMX chips will be in sub-$1,000 machines by 1998, thereby undercutting the profitability of both the MediaGX , the 6x86, and AMD's K6. At the same time, the design advantages of the Pentium II give it an advantage in the high end.

"You can [make design changes], but to the average user it doesn't make much difference. These guys should focus on getting some of their product out," said Carl Johnson, president of Infrastructure. "The 6x86 has already fallen to the low end."