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Next-generation PCs still to come

Intel introduces the Pentium II, but true next-generation PCs are not here yet and won't be for a while.

Intel (INTC) unveiled the Pentium II today, a new generation of its Pentium processor that is supposed to carry the company to the next century. But true next-generation PCs are not here yet and won't be for a while.

The chip giant introduced the Pentium II today at speeds of 233, 266, and 300 MHz. More than a dozen major PC manufacturers, including Compaq Computer, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell Computer, Digital Equipment, NEC, and Micron, announced plans to ship systems that use the new chip. (See related story)

But a long list of still-missing technologies means that the Pentium II boxes offered today don't look like the next-generation boxes users can expect next year. And higher prices means that the boxes won't become widely popular until next year anyway.

"[The Pentium II] will not sweep the market by storm this year," according to Michael Slater, publisher of the Microprocessor Report. "We're talking about a few million [Pentium II systems] this year not tens of millions. Don't forget that 1997 is the year of the [MMX] Pentium. The Pentium II will sweep the market in 1998," predicted Slater.

Intel's Pentium II packages the chip in a unique cartridge that plugs into a slot in the computer, a radical departure from the traditional design. Intel presented a glimpse of things to come when it demonstrated a 400-MHz Pentium II today in New York at the Pentium II roll-out.

But the new boxes announced by PC manufacturers today are for the most part older Pentium Pro systems dressed up in faster Pentium II clothing. This is because the chipset that works with the main processor to make the PC function was actually designed for the Pentium Pro systems, announced several years ago. A chipset is a group of chips that allows the processor to communicate with the rest of the PC and, with the processor, forms the core of a PC.

One of the other next-generation technologies most conspicuously absent from today's announcement is Intel's next-generation 3D called Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP), which provides a much-needed boost to 3D performance at lower cost. This will not be available until later this year.

When Intel ships AGP, it will also deliver the AGP-compatible chipset to replace the one now borrowed from the Pentium Pro. "We expect to see systems [with this chipset] in late Q3 or early Q4 and it won't enter the mainstream until early '98," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at market research firm Dataquest.

AGP and a new chipset is not all that's missing; the boxes also lack high-speed synchronous DRAM memory chips that can keep up with the new, super-fast chips.

The new systems will also rely on Memphis, Microsoft's upgrade to Windows 95 that will provide some critical support for new PC technologies such as advanced 3D graphics. But the upgrade isn't expected to ship until 1998.

Moreover, there is a skeleton in the Pentium II closet. Intel is now offering a technology called the Dual Independent Bus that increases Pentium II performance compared to the the MMX Pentium when the processor "talks" to cache memory. But in reality, the cache memory performance is about half the speed of that offered by the current version of the 200-MHz Pentium Pro chip.

In addition to the lack of some critical technologies, the Pentium II costs too much to become a popular chip for most home and office desktops. The 266-MHz Pentium II costs about $750 while the 300-MHz chip costs roughly $1,900; that means that systems that use these chips will start at about $3,000, too exorbitant for most mainstream users. These figures won't come down to the mainstream levels until the first quarter of 1998, according to Brookwood of Dataquest.

The 233-MHz chip is reasonably priced at about $600, but doesn't offer a compelling performance advantage over older, less-expensive Pentium chips, analysts noted.

The situation might be different if the other next-generation technologies were available. Slater and others says that Intel would have liked to have had at least its AGP graphics technology ready by now. "We had expected to use AGP in Pentium II systems at this point," said Pete Johnson, director of strategic marketing for Micron Computer.

But Intel must have decided it wasn't worth it to wait. The two-phase rollout does pose a dilemma of sorts for the systems vendors, who will then have to tweak their designs later to accommodate the other new technologies. "This is an accelerated introduction [of processor technology]. So we had to think, do we wait and not introduce?" said Denny Lane, director of business management and operations at Digital.

The company opted for introducing a two-processor Pentium II workstation, hoping to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack with this design.