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Shipping boxes: Pentium-based systems for 1996 and 1997.

Welcome to the fourth Computers in Libraries Buyer's Guide article on Intel-based PCs. Before making this year's recommendations, it might be worth spending a few moments discussing desktop computing in a larger context. After all, once in a while we ought to ask why we are spending so much money on PCs.

For many years I have said to anyone who would listen that PCs are only one-third of a much larger equation, the other two-thirds being the database and network infrastructures. Six years ago James Martin (PC Week, May 14, 1990, p. 74) summed it all up nicely:

The future belongs to organizations skilled in providing solutions for the desktop-computing environment, the database infrastructure and the network infrastructure.

While librarians may have some control over local databases and networks, it's plain that they have little or no control over much beyond their own institutions or the consortia they may be members of. And few users inquire about the quality of the databases they use or the networks built to access them. To witness this assertion, the next time you are in a PC cluster spend 30 minutes watching students blindly accept whatever results their Web search returns.

Librarians do have control, and near total control at that, over the local desk-top, the point at which our users confront the database and network infrastructures. And it's here that we can make a powerful contribution to our users by providing them with the best possible equipment and environment at the right price.

For better or for worse, that local desktop is increasingly likely to be a Pentium-based PC running some version of Windows. In 1995 there were about 60 million PCs shipped worldwide, 92 percent of them with Intel or Intel work-alike CPUs. The other 8 percent came from Apple. Last year in the U.S. there were some 22,531,000 PC shipments, with Intel-based PCs taking 89 percent of the market and Apple taking the remaining 11 percent.

Apple's PC market share is in multimedia, education, desktop publishing, Internet use, and home computing, according to Adrian Mello in "Assaying Market Share," (Macworld, January 1996, pp. 17-18). Intel owns nearly everything else, including the vast business market. Columnist Charles Cooper ("Amelio Agonistes," PC Week Online, April 26, 1996) predicts that Apple will try to increase market share by creating products for categories that include learning, publishing, media authoring, scientific/engineering and design, and internetworking (intranet).

Further, in an attempt to move into the Windows/Intel business world, Apple has licensed the Macintosh operating system to IBM. But if Jeffrey Friederichs, director of product marketing for Toshiba is right, things are not likely to improve soon. Friederichs (PC Magazine Online, "Quote of the Day," September 18, 1995) has observed that:

People buy processors out of fear of the unknown rather than from confidence. People are basically conservative about what CPUs they buy and use. This is likely to hold back any major efforts to break into Intel's hold on the market.

If the past is prologue, and if Friederichs is right, Intel will remain on top despite the best efforts of CPU work-alike manufacturers American Micro Devices (AMD) and Cyrix, or makers of alternative CPUs such as the PowerPC from the Apple/IBM/Motor ola consortium.

Intel on System Components

Intel has a brief background paper on susbsytems for Pentium-based computers entitled "Pentium Processor Systems: Taking PCs to the Next Stage" at systems/ppsys/index.htm. In it, Intel outlines desirable characteristics for key components in a well-balanced Pentium system: memory, storage, bus, and graphics. The following paragraphs are reprinted from that document.

Memory Subsystem. Key components of a memory subsystem are: large fast RAM, second-level write-back cache, and wide processor-to-memory bus. 8 to 32 Mbytes of RAM will enable the processor to efficiently run large applications and advanced operating systems. A 256 to 512 KByte write-back cache increases memory performance by helping coordinate the speed of the Pentium processor with the slower RAM. And a 64-bit bus increases the flow of data between the processor and the system's RAM and memory cache.

Hard Disk. High-performance hard drives have at least 540 MBytes of capacity, provide an average seek time of 12 milliseconds, have a 128 to 256 KByte hard disk buffer cache with both write-caching and read-caching capabilities, and spin about 4,500 rotations per minute.

PCI and Video Graphics Card. The PCI local bus greatly improves I/O performance, especially graphics. The PCI bus can transfer data between the processor and the peripherals at up to 132 MB/second, far faster than the ISA bus rate of 5 MB/second. A full-featured PCI-compliant VGA card, with at least 1 to 2 MB of video RAM, will further accelerate graphics performance.

Pentium Systems

With those industry trends and Intel subsystem comments as background, let's first turn to last year's recommendations. One year ago our system of choice (this example came from Quantex) had the following characteristics:

* 11 Bay mid-tower * 75 MHz Pentium * 16 MB RAM, 256 K cache * 1 GB, 10 ms IDE hard drive * PCI-bus IDE controller * 64-bit PCI-bus video card with 2 MB * 17-inch monitor * 3.5-inch 1.44 MB floppy drive * 14.4 fax/modem * Quad-speed CD-ROM * 16-bit sound card and speakers * DOS, W4W 3.11, mouse, software * Cost: $2,699

Install a network card instead of a modem, and it was an ideal office system. Today, the 75-MHz Pentium is gone from Intel's lineup and Pentium-based systems begin at 100 MHz and top out at 166 MHz. In May of this year, Quantex offered the following system:

* Mid-tower case * 150 MHz Pentium * Intel 430 HX PCI chipset * 16 MB EDO RAM; 512 K Cache * 2 GB 10 ms EIDE hard drive * STB Powergraph o Video/2 MB EDO RAM * 17-inch .26 mm dot pitch MAG monitor * 3.5 inch 1.44 MB floppy drive * 28.8 fax/modem * Toshiba 6x CD-ROM drive * 16-bit sound card and speakers * Windows 95, Microsoft Plus, mouse, software * Cost: $2,449

This system has a CPU that is twice as fast, a quicker RAM, and a larger and speedier cache. The hard drive has twice the capacity and marginally better performance. The video card is more powerful and the monitor is also better. The CD-ROM drive is faster, as is the modem. Further, the price has gone down $250, or 9 percent. This system will meet or exceed any reasonable requirements for general purpose computing under Windows 3.11 or Windows 95 because the Pentium has superscalar architecture, separate code and data caches, branch prediction, a high-performance floating point unit, and an enhanced 64-bit data bus. For more about the Pentium, point your Web browser at procs/pentium/pptech/callouts.htm.

Commodity Systems

Similarly equipped Pentium-based systems are widely available from low-priced vendors, as Table 1 (see next page) shows. The major difference is that these vendors typically list a slower Pentium processor and a 15-inch monitor to lower advertised prices. Pentium computers are commodity goods at heart and today most have motherboards in them that are made by Intel. The only customization may be in the shape of the case and the design of the label the vendor puts on it.
                   Table 1
         Multimedia Pentium Systems
         Computer Shopper, May 1996

Vendor              Pentium         System price
Channel             100MHz          $1,549
ABS                 120MHz          $1,560
EPS Technologies    120MHz          $1,595
MicroProfessionals  100MHz          $1,629
Comtrade            120MHz          $1,665
Maximus             100MHz          $1,699
Zenon               100MHz          $1,699
Blue Thunder        100MHz          $1,729
CyberMax            100MHz          $1,749
Quantex             100MHz          $1,749
Occo                100MHz          $1,799

The comparisons below are based on systems costing less than $1,800 with at least the following components: 100 MHz Pentium, 16 MB RAM; 256 K cache; 1 GB hard drive; 2 MB video, 15-inch SVGA monitor; 3.5-inch floppy, 4x CD-ROM; sound card and speakers; mouse; and operating system. Note that sound cards and speakers vary widely in quality and price. These prices are from advertisements appearing in the May 1996 issue of Computer Shopper.

These systems are presented to illustrate where the low-end multimedia Pentiums may be found. Add a network card, a backup device, and an uninterruptible power supply to complete your system. Other purchasing considerations include service and reliability.

System prices will continue to fall. Expect prices to drop another 20 percent over the next six months. Tom R. Halfhill, writing in BYTE ("Intel: 200-MHz Pentiums to Arrive This Year," April 1996, p 30), predicts that:

By the end of the year, the fastest Pentium will run at a blazing 200 MHz and CPU prices will drop so fast that businesses will regard PCs with 120- and 133-MHz Pentiums as entry-level boxes. While low-end systems will range in price from $1,200 to $1,500- mid-range PCs costing $1,500-$2,000 will have 150- and 166-MHz Pentiums.

The Pentium Pro

Introduced on November 1, 1995, Intel's latest offering is the Pentium Pro. Its major technological advance is dynamic execution. According to Intel, dynamic execution is composed of three parts: multiple branch prediction, data flow analysis, and speculative execution, which work together to manipulate data rather than to simply process a list of instructions.

Briefly, multiple branch prediction anticipates jumps in the instruction flow, data flow analysis determines the optimal sequence for instruction processing; and speculative execution is a method of looking ahead for useful work to perform. Dynamic execution is designed to give a significant performance boost to systems running 32-bit software. This information is discussed in much greater detail on Intel's Web site in a slide show at com/product/tech-briefs/pentium pro/index.htm.

According to G. Carl Everett, senior vice president of the Desktop Products Group in Intel's online Directions Magazine of November 8, 1995 (http:// index.html):

Pentium Pro processor-based systems will bring PC economics into market segments that haven't seen PC-style price/performance in the past. These systems are excellent solutions for high-end applications in the financial, visual computing, and scientific and technical worlds.

The Pentium Pro is optimized for 32-bit software. Indeed, Andrew Grove, president and CEO of Intel, made interesting comments in an interview with John Dodge of PC Week Online (published September 15, 1995, entitled, "Grove Outlines Highlights of Intel's Coming Year"): "It does not do anything very spectacular for Windows 95. Nor does it need to, either. Win 95 and Pentium go very well together. The 32-bit software, as exemplified by [Windows] NT, UNIX, and Solaris, will shine on P6 [Pentium Pro]."

In some 16-bit applications - and these are the kind most of us use today - the Pentium Pro may run more slowly than a less powerful Pentium. Andy Reinhardt, writing in PC World ("P6 Faster - and Slower - Than Pentium", October 1995, p. 56), confirmed this and offered an explanation:

Why would a faster processor run some software slower? The answer traces to which operations the chip is optimized to perform. To boost speed the P6 [Pentium Pro] tries to predict the flow of program execution - a technique that works well for new 32-bit code. But 16-bit programs tuned to older processors can throw off the predictions and drag down P6 performance. Code in the Windows 3.1 graphics engine is especially prone to confounding the P6 Intel says.

As noted above, Intel expects early adopters of the Pentium Pro to be users of computing-intensive applications now typically defined by the workstation market. They also see a market for the Pentium Pro in network servers.

Another possible scenario is that performance-minded power users will buy Pentium Pros, install Windows NT, and run 32-bit versions of their favorite applications on them. In any event, in 12 to 18 months, watch for Intel to push the Pentium Pro as the desktop system of choice for general business users in much the same way they now advertise Pentium-based systems on television and in mass market periodicals.

Why Upgrade?

Do we really need all of this power? The simple answer is, Yes, we need the Pentium to run Windows 95 and its applications now, and we'll need the Pentium Pro to run Windows NT later when Microsoft moves the desktop from Windows 95 (some bit code) to NT (all 32-bit code), as it surely will. But Eammon Sullivan of PC Week Online ("Editorial: Hype Over 32-bit is Still Just Hype," August 7, 1995) wants us to ask some fundamental questions about the importance of software upgrades in general and bit applications in particular before we abandon what we have.

1. Does the upgrade really make users more productive?

2. Does the upgrade solve any of the problems you are having with the current version of the application?

3. Are time-consuming operations sped up?

4. Are impossible tasks now possible?

5. Does the upgrade offer a competitive advantage to the organization?

Answering these questions frankly will go a long way toward determining whether or not a software upgrade that in turn dictates a hardware upgrade is truly necessary.

MMX - P55C

On March 5, 1996, Intel released the first details of its MMX technology. These multimedia extensions are designed to make mainstream PCs richer multimedia and communications platforms by adding 57 instructions to a new Pentium P55C CPU. The multimedia extensions will, support enhanced graphics, video, and audio by building these functions into the CPU. Look for some of these systems to have video and audio outputs for TVs and VCRs.

The P55C is positioned as a playback CPU but content creators will want a Pentium Pro, according to Andrew Grove in Brooke Crothers' "Intel Reveals Strategy for P55C, Multimedia Enhancements", (InfoWorld, November 6, 1995, p. 6). Initial production is scheduled for the fourth quarter of 1996. Intel-work-alike CPU manufacturer AMD has licensed the MMX instruction set, while, at the time this was written, Cyrix had not. Finally, Intel plans to offer an OverDrive upgrade processor with MMX technology to those who have PCs with at least a MHz Pentium.

One prediction of the market impact of the P55C was offered by Michael Slater of Microprocessor Report in his Computer Shopper column for February 1996 (p. 80):

This next-generation Pentium chip will offer higher performance - a lot more on multimedia applications, a little more on other applications - with lower power consumption. Starting at the high end in late 1996, the P55C will sweep the mainstream desktop and notebook markets in 1997. Intel's competitors will follow suit with their own processors with multimedia instruction - set extensions.

The Wrap Up

As PC buyers, we often feel as though we are spending more and more money to satisfy ever-increasing user demands for ever more powerful systems. Fortunately, this year's system is substantially more powerful and costs less than last year's. And this trend will only continue.

Nevertheless, once in a while we'd all like to say, "Freeze - let nothing change for a year!" and give everyone a chance to catchup. It won't happen.

Faced with a relentless tide of new offerings, readers would be well-advised to remember these words from Andrew Grove, head of Intel, in the interview with John Dodge cited earlier in the discussion of the Pentium Pro: "We have to obsolete our products before anyone else has a chance." Those new MMX P55C Pentiums should do the job very nicely, Mr. Grove.

Eric Flower is the library director at the University of Hawaii-West Oahu and was a former editor-in-chief of Computers in Libraries. Contact him by email:, Phone: 808/455-0497, Fax: 808/453-6076, or Mail: 96-043 Ala Ike, Pearl City, HI 96782.
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Title Annotation:Pentium Pro and MMX-P55C microprocessors
Author:Flower, Eric
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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