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Intel plans a "Basic PC"

Sub-$1,000 computers will incorporate modems, DVD playback, and improved audio and graphics capabilities in a revamped design.

Upcoming sub-$1,000 computers will incorporate modems, DVD playback, and improved audio and 3D graphics into systems with fewer internal parts and a far smaller "footprint" than their predecessors.

More for less was the underlying message today when Intel outlined the specifications of the "Basic PC" at the Intel Developer Forum.

The "Basic PC" effort, which Intel describes as applying to any PC under $1,000, is essentially the company's attempt to retrofit PC design to accommodate a tight cost-performance parameter that's in demand from consumers and businesses.

Basic PC designs are expected to come into vogue--via offerings from personal computer manufacturers--later this year and in 1999.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.

Rather than focus on isolated areas where costs can be reduced, Intel is coming out with an across-the-board low-cost PC design which touches almost everything under the hood of an advanced PC, according to Pat Gelsigner, Intel executive vice president. In the end, Intel aims to enhance the low-cost PC and trim fat simultaneously.

Products coming under this effort include new Pentium II processors and chipsets (see related story), a small PC circuit board called the microATX, and a shift to software of many media functions that have traditionally required special hardware, Gelsinger said.

"Soft modem, soft DVD, soft audio--most of these technologies will start appearing in products this year with broad availability as a standard feature in 1999," he said. Almost of this specialized audio, DVD, and modem hardware can be eliminated by either running these functions on the Pentium II processor or on future, high-powered Intel chipsets which have integrated audio and 3D graphics.

A chipset is a group of companion chips to the processor which, along with the Pentium II, form the core of a PC.

The deletion and shrinking of parts on the inside of the box will in turn lead to smaller form factors, said Mayne Mihacsi, with the desktop products group at Intel. The first of these new form factors will be the "Micro Tower" a tower-style computer that will stand between 11 to 14 inches and be about 13 inches wide. That compares to current towers, which stand 17 inches high and extend for 18 inches in width.

"Everyone says these systems are cute, I don't know why," he said. "At $999, customers see it and think they are getting their value."

Implicit in the Basic PC definition is a reduction in some functionality. Most designs will only accommodate two external bays--which hold devices like floppy drives and CD-ROM drives-- pointed out Mihacsi. SCSI (small computer system interface) connections will not be part of the spec. The Basic PC will also only have a 66-MHz bus rather than the faster, upcoming 100-MHz bus. A bus is a data pathway which connects the processor to the rest of the system.

The component parts for the Basic PC are fairly simple, John Hyde, an engineer with the Desktop Product Group, pointed out. At the core of these machines will be the first "Covington" Pentium II processors that come without the extra high-speed "cache" memory.

The cacheless Covington will appear in April. Systems will appear at the same time. Later, the "Mendocino" chip, which includes integrated cache memory, will appear in the third quarter and run as fast as 300 MHz, said sources.

These parts will come on the microATX motherboard as well as other upcoming small circuit boards. The motherboard will also include space for up to 256 megabytes of memory, support for Advanced Graphics Port (AGP) 3D graphics chips, and connection technologies such as Universal Serial Bus and 1394.

Differences will also exist between Basic PCs designed for consumers and those designed for businesses.

Eventually, more functionality will come to these systems, said Gelsinger. In his demonstration, for instance, Gelsinger debuted an experimental program that could compress and play back video on a Pentium II without the use of a graphics chip. The program was experimental and not ready for release, he pointed out. Still, it achieved what a year ago was considered something that could only become possible in the distant future.

"It was a 350-MHz Pentium II with a 100-MHz bus and it used all of it," he said of the computer running the program.

Further multimedia will come as standards get ironed out between manufacturers. For instance, the effort to bring recordable DVD to market "is a mess" because manufacturers are not agreeing to standards.

Gelsinger also brushed away assertions that Intel will dominate all of the internal electronics of a computer. The Basic PC design eliminates opportunities for makers of modems or graphics products, but it is a basic specification, he said, implying it could be duplicated by rivals.