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Pentium dilemma: to buy or not to buy

This week's Pentium is really fast--200 MHz--but even faster ones are right around the corner, and they'll come with built-in multimedia. Should you wait?

The multimedia Pentium: should you wait for it?

Starting late this year, a new wave of home PCs will hit store shelves sporting a new breed of powerful multimedia "Pentium+" processors that are expected to eclipse the performance of even the super-fast 200-MHz Pentium announced this week. Buying the latest, greatest machine only to have it become quickly obsolete is not a new story for PC users. But with these multimedia PCs literally right around the corner, users have to ask themselves if they should sit out this round of Pentium processors.

The easiest way to answer this questions is, first, to look at Intel's roadmap and, second, take a peek at the technology.

A glance at the roadmap reveals which route Intel itself is preparing to take: the Pentium+, as Intel is calling it internally, will quickly supplant the traditional Pentium processor across the board at every clock speed. In fact, by mid-1997, Intel thinks the traditional Pentium architecture will have gone the way of the 386 and 486 processors.

Three new features of the Pentium+ will make this the case:
--More cache: The Pentium+ will have twice the internal cache of the current Pentium. Pentium processors today have 16K of cache. The Pentium+ will have 32K. Generally speaking, the more internal cache a processor has, the faster it runs.
--Better design: Intel has made significant improvements to the Pentium's internal design. Intel has moved some of the performance-enhancing features of its high-end Pentium Pro processor into the Pentium+, such as the ability to move data through the chip's "pipelines" at greater speeds.
--The MMX multimedia unit: This unit deep inside the chip handles the new MMX multimedia instructions. When future MMX-aware applications start taking advantage of these instructions, MMX chips will speed up video, graphics, and audio from 50 percent at the bottom of the scale to as much as 400 percent.

Even without the MMX stuff for multimedia processing, the new internal design and increased cache mean the chip will still run about ten percent faster than traditional Pentiums, even the new ones.

The decision to wait for tomorrow's multimedia hot-box or buy a PC with today's speediest chip at bargain-basement prices depends on your needs, wallet, and whether you have the upgraditis itch. What's clear is that, come this fall, the revamp of the Pentium architecture represented by the Pentium+ will make instant has-beens of today's Pentium. So be forewarned.

Related story:
Vendors line up for 200-MHz Pentium