Virtually every major computer company will unveil budget-class Pentium 4 computers for the business market at the beginning of next week. Hewlett-Packard, for instance, will release the Vectra VL 420, which will contain a 1.6GHz Pentium 4, 128MB of memory and a 20GB hard drive for $899. Gateway, Dell Computer, IBM and others have similar plans.
All of these computers will share key characteristics. For one, they will cost approximately $100 less than existing, similarly configured models, according to sources, because they will contain SDRAM, the most common form of memory on the market today, rather than RDRAM, the memory based on designs from Rambus.
The union of SDRAM and the Pentium 4 is possible because of the release of Intel's 845 chipset, which was announced last July. Until now, all Pentium 4 chipsets worked only with RDRAM.
Besides costing less, these new computers should be popular with corporate IT managers. In 1999 and 2000, Rambus became a hard sell to corporate buyers because of delays, high prices and recalls associated in one way or another with RDRAM. Intel executives have also blamed some of their company's recent problems on adapting to Rambus.
"People hate it for religious reasons," said Roland Baker, CEO of Net Express, which manufactures workstations and servers for universities, among other customers. "They will use it only if they have to...When people are considering a Pentium 4 system and they find out it has Rambus in it, they say, 'Forget it. Let's go with a Pentium III.'"
Said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research: "We're hearing from motherboard makers that (the 845 chipset) is the next big thing...This means that the Pentium 4 can be used in the corporate market. The corporate guys have a long memory."
Rambus executives dispute these contentions. "The price difference will be more like $30 to $50," said Avo Kanadjian, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at the Los Altos, Calif.-based company. "There were some reservations in the past, but we've had two years of mass production that show that an RDRAM system is highly reliable and stable."
The Rambus memory will be used in consumer computers and in workstations. It does provide an edge in performance, said McCarron. And a third-party manufacturer is expected to come out with a Pentium 4-Rambus chipset in the near future, according to sources.
Still, most PC makers, and at least three other chipset manufacturers, are leaning toward SDRAM for their volume lines. A version of the 845 that will let PC makers merge the Pentium 4 with DDR DRAM, a faster version of SDRAM, will come early next year, sources said.
"You're going to take a performance impact," McCarron said. "The reality, though, is that it doesn't matter" for most corporate customers.
Most of the PCs will sell for around $899 and save business buyers around $100 or more. The basic configuration of Gateway's upcoming E-6000 desktop, for example, will feature a 1.5GHz Pentium 4, a 20GB hard drive, and 128MB of SDRAM for $1,139. A similar computer with RDRAM would be priced $100 higher, said sources close to the company.
Dell's Dimension 4300 will feature a similar configuration and cost about the same. Compared with other, similar Dell desktops, the Dimension 4300 will cost anywhere from $90 to $220 less, depending on the configuration and the amount of memory used.
Intel has not officially released the 845 chipset. Company executives, however, were upbeat about its prospects at the Intel Developer Forum last week.
"We believe the 845 is going to be the next high-volume chipset," said Jeff Austin, marketing manager for Intel.
Staff writer John G. Spooner contributed to this report.