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The state-of-the-art PC

The state-of-the-art PC

Having trouble coping with the speed of change in PC technology? With new releases hitting the market every day, it's getting tougher to keep up with all the latest features and options a reseller needs to be aware of in order to sell a desktop PC to customers. So ARN has taken a look at the market to find out exactly what makes up a state-of-the-art PC. Chris Keall investigates.

Processors. In the first half of '98, Intel CEO Andy Grove missed one of his beloved strategic inflection points, and watched haplessly as AMD (with its K6) and Cyrix (with its MII) bit chunks off Intel's formerly monolithic market share, especially in the budget PC arena.

Intel will continue its fightback strategy this month with the release of the Celeron-433, looking to build on the momentum created by the 366MHz and 400MHz Celerons released during February and immediately adopted by Dell, Gateway and others.

The new editions to the workhorse Celeron line will keep Intel a jump ahead of AMD (now readying a 400MHz of its popular K6-2 processor) while Cyrix is still pushing its price competitive MII-300. Next up for Cyrix: a 400MHz version of the MII, plus a super low-cost processor, the 350MHz MXi, featuring a built-in 3D graphics contoller - making it the natural successor to the popular multipurpose MediaGX chip.

Look for Compaq, HP and other inter-national brands to slot the new AMD and Cyrix chips into selected Soho models, further legitimising their use by local assemblers.

At the high end, Intel has just released its Pentium III processor, available in 450MHz and 500MHz flavours.

What separates a 450MHz Pentium III from a 450MHz Pentium II? The PIII's key new feature is Intel's new Katmai multi-media instruction set. The 3D Now! technology pushed by AMD and Cyrix is largely marketing hype (for it requires 3D Now! optimised software, of which there's little available), whereas Katmai is a genuine breakthrough. The Katmai instructions build on MMX, with the crucial advance that, unlike MMX, they don't piggyback on floating point instructions (meaning the two could not run concurrently).

AMD is keeping Intel on its toes, however, with its 500MHz K7 processor waiting in the wings. On its release (by June), expect Intel to hit back with a 533MHz version of the PIII.

At the very bleeding edge, Intel has its Xeon processor, aimed at workstations and servers. The biggest, meanest chip is the 500MHz Xeon (code-named Tanner), which is essentially a Pentium III that runs its Level 2 cache at full throttle (the PIII's L2 cache runs at half the CPU's core speed).

Mobile processors. Poor AMD. It was just starting to make some hard-won progress into the portable market when Intel unleashed a torrent of cheap and fast new mobile CPUs.

The February/March wave of notebook chip releases consists of: two budget mobile processors - the Celeron-266 and Celeron-300 (which benchmark very close to PII-266 and PII-300 models)two mid-priced mobile processors, the PII-266PE and the PII-300PE, which are slightly faster than the plain vanilla PII-266 and PII-300 thanks to the fact they run their L2 cache at the CPU's full speedtwo high-end mobile processors, the PII-333 and PII-366, which leave the PII-300 in the dust.

Motherboards. Intel's new PIII processors are going into tried and tested 440BX motherboards, with 100MHz system bus speed.

But Intel is about to launch a new motherboard, code-named Camino, based on its new 820 chipset which will support a 133MHz system bus.

However, PC makers fear that Camino will lock them into using expensive RD-RAM.

Memory. RAM remains dirt cheap, with analysts expecting the memory chip glut to last until at least the end of the year. Savvy PC buyers are taking advantage of the price lull, with an upgrade from 64MB to 128MB of RAM proving the cheapest, most potent steroid shot around - easily outpacing other upgrade options in bang-for-buck terms. SD-RAM continues to rule on the desktop, and its reign should continue through to the end of the year when Intel will push its Direct Rambus DRAM (RD-RAM) technology. Intel claims RD-RAM will deliver data to the processor twice as fast as the SD-RAM chips it will replace.

Hard drives. Just as Intel has segmented its CPU strategy, hard drive makers are going backwards rather than forwards with some models; witness Seagate's 2.1GB drive that's proved a hit in the budget PC category. For more realistic buyers, 5GB is the new entry-level, with power users opting for 14GB drives. Meanwhile, IBM has provided a glimpse of the entry-level to-be in Q4 with the release of its 25GB drive. Not that that will fortify a PC's resale value long into the future. All hard drive manufacturers will move up to 50GB next year, with 75GB and 100GB drives also on the roadmap - ready to soak up all those multimedia files that will swamp the desktop as faster Internet options come online.

The latest word in internal drive interface technology is the new ATA-66 standard, which eclipses older ATA-33 technology.

Graphics technology. 3D-capable AGP cards are fast supplanting plain PCI graphics cards as the new entry-level. It's becoming impossible to find an action game you can play without a 3D card.

The latest incarnation of this Intel-authored technology, AGP 2X is twice the speed of its predecessor. In the third quarter, AGP 4X-based cards will appear, doubling performance again.

Entry-level buyers are now looking for a card with 8MB of Video RAM, with 4MB cards slipping into the budget PC categ-ory. Power users are demanding cards with 16MB of RAM.

The hottest graphics cards chipsets remain the TNT Riva (for business graphics) and the Voodoo II (for gamers).

Removable storage. Floppies are out. Small files can be shuffled between home and work over the Internet; larger files need an Iomega Zip drive. Buyers used to weigh the decision between a serial or parallel version, now there's only one smart choice: the new USB capable Zip. Revelling in the bankruptcy and closure of arch-rival SyQuest, Iomega has also just released a more expensive Zip drive that can take 250MB cartridges.

The Imation SuperDrive and other LS-120 drives have yet to make an impact on the Zip's dominant marketshare, despite their ability to read floppies - partly because the Zip got such a head start, partly because LS-120 is so achingly slow.

An interesting new option is Sony's HiFD drive, which takes 200MB cartridges (as well as floppies) and easily outpaces a Zip drive. Sony says it will give HiFD a big push, but it's more expensive than Zip and like LS-120 maybe just too late off the mark.

For archiving files or small business back-up, you can't beat CD rewritable (CD-RW) drives, which have recently crashed in price to the point where there's little difference with write-once (CD-R) drives.

DVD manufacturers have finally settled on a writable DVD standard, called DVD-RAM. But although DVD-RAM drives have 5.2GB capacity (double-sided) and are 40 to 60 per cent faster than CD-RW drives, they're also three times the price, and their disks can't be read by the newest DVD-ROM drives. A DVD-RAM drive also requires a SCSI adapter, further bumping up the cost.

Monitors. PC makers are trying to prod PC buyers into upsizing from a 15-inch CRT monitor to a 17-inch, and the price gap between the two has certainly closed. Budget systems still often feature 14-inch monitors, however.

LCD flat panels have overcome the usability barrier; you no longer need a special adapter to plug one into a desktop PC.

The price barrier is a different story. Having crashed over the last 18 months, making LCD screens for desktop PCs feasible for the first time at the high end, component shortages are now pushing flat panel prices back up again.

Ports and slots. While ISA slots RIP, the inside of the box belongs to PCI. The new focus of debate is ports: is it too soon to go USB-only? Abandoning serial and parallel ports hasn't done the iMac any harm, but most PC makers are wary that USB devices have been slow to arrive. Still, savvy buyers are looking for a PC with two USB ports.

Sound Card. The latest developments in sound card technology are 3D Audio and Positional Sound (where noise changes as you move through a virtual landscape). Both are found in Creative Labs SoundBlaster Live and other sound cards more suited to fun than business.

Developments in surround sound, coupled with the increasing popularity of DVD-ROM drives, are also helping to push PC buyers into upgrading to beefier speakers or adding a sub woofer (which gives a PC comparable audio to a home stereo system).

DVD-ROM. The price gap between DVD-ROM and CD-ROM has closed a lot, but maybe not enough. The scheme to break up the world into six DVD regions (you can only play a DVD released for your region) has also proved a clumsy attempt to combat privacy, only serving to infuriate buyers. But whatever the reason, demand for DVD-ROM drives is still soft, with HP even removing them from some models in favour of the good old CD-ROM drive.

Serious input. Split-key keyboard designs like the Microsoft Natural Keyboard have found favour with RSI-fearing mid-range buyers. The new Natural Keyboard 2.0 features keys that are closer together, as well as the special Windows 9.x shortcut keys that also feature on its predecessor.

A mouse with a scroll dial, such as the Microsoft Intellimouse 2.0 or the Logitech MouseMan Wheel, makes another point of comparison with a budget system. The dials on this new generation of smart mice can be twirled to scroll down a page onscreen.

For joysticks, the hot trends are USB - whose high bandwidth allows for shuddering force feedback as you take a turn in your racing sim - and motion sensing technology. The later means you simply move your wireless joystick or gamepad in the air to control the action on-screen.

Take that, PlayStation.

Products

Apple

Continuing with its revolutionary colour and visual design theme set by the iMac, Apple has released the Power Macintosh G3. Looking every bit as stylish as its predecessor, the G3 has a number of features which place it in good stead at the higher end of the PC market.

One of its best design features is its functional easy-open, lockable tower, allowing the quick addition of memory, storage or PCI cards.

With processor speeds of 400MHz, fast system bus and a backup cache of up to one megabyte, the G3 can handle video and high-resolution graphics demands.

It features a quick FireWire (400Mbps) bus designed specifically for plug-and-play connection of digital cameras, importing video directly with no degradation in quality when combined with the built-in ATI Rage 128 graphics accelerator. It also comes with 16MB of graphics memory.

Naturally enough, the Power Mac G3 has a dedicated internal modem slot for an optional 56Kbps modem and comes with 10/100 BASE-T Ethernet built in.

The power Mac G3 also comes with 128MB SDRAM, and a 24-speed CD-ROM drive. Despite the added extras, the G3 has been designed to take up less space than the previous model.

Starting at $3495 for the bottom of the range 300MHz, the 400MHz Power Mac G3 is priced at $6695.

Hewlett-Packard

With the new model Vectra VLs to be released in the next couple of months, Hewlett-Packard is set for a major revamp of its corporate PCs, ensuring the vendor remains a significant player in the high-end market.

Top of the HP workstation range, however, remains the Kayak series XU and XA PCs.

The Kayak XA-s PC workstation features a 450MHz Pentium II processor, a Matrox Productiva G100-Quad multimonitor graphics card, 128MB ECC RAM and a 9.1GB/7200rpm wide UltraSCSI hard-disk drive in a desktop form factor.

The Matrox Productiva G100-Quad graphics card will also be available on the HP Kayak XU Xeon PC Workstation upon request.

Touting security and sustainability of technology as driving factors, Eric Cador, general manager of HP's commercial computing division, comments "as IT environments continue to grow in size and complexity, corporate customers require more from their PCs than just the latest specifications.

"When corporate PCs are highly manageable, bullet-proof from security threats, and maintain consistent components throughout the product life cycle, customers can strengthen their existing businesses and also gain the confidence to expand into new areas, such as e-commerce," he said.

Acer

Released late last year, Acer's high-end PC offering, the AcerPower 8000, boasts power, graphics capabilities and manageability in a networked environment as the key to ensuring the product is a superior (managed) PC.

Powered by a 450MHz Intel Pentium II processor and equipped with an Intel 440BX AGPset chipset, the AcerPower 8000 has a total bus speed of 100MHz.

With an Intel i740 graphics chip-based AGP, the AcerPower 8000 is ideal for design-intensive implementations, meaning faster graphics acceleration, especially for 3D demands.

Allowing system administrators to monitor S.M.A.R.T. disks, system information, hardware status, and CPU utilisation information, the AcerPower 8000 series is bundled with the vendor's Advanced Desktop Manager (ADM) software, ensuring complete management of the client PC from a system administrator's PC.

By synchronising itself with the processor bus to 100MHz, the AcerPower 8000 series' SDRAM mem-ory is able to run 50 per cent faster than SDRAM at 66MHz. Acer claims this contributes to faster overall system performance, under all applications.

In Australia, the commercial desktop PC features a three-year limited on-site warranty, and a hot-line call support centre accessible from Monday Friday.

Compaq

Compaq's Deskpro EN series claims to provide consistency, serviceability and manageability as benchmarks for the vendor's high-end enterprise PC range.

Ranging from 300 to 400MHz Pentium-II based processors; the Deskpro EN series also offers a smaller form-factor range to conserve desk and office space while maintaining full performance and functionality.

Lowering the total cost of ownership, the reduced form-factor series features a single open PCI slot and one open combo slot which provides the capabilities for future expansion while an integrated NIC makes network deployment simple.

Boasting refinement rather than reinvention, the Deskpro EN series offers stability with the latest core technologies delivered in incremental models to avoid unnecessary transition. Manageability tools from Compaq and Compaq Partners ensure that each machine is set up consistently and can be remotely managed over the network with diagnostic LEDs for desktop troubleshooting.

Offering a choice of Windows 95 or Windows NT operating systems, upgrades and service are easy in the Deskpro EN Series, with tilt-out drive bays, removable riser card and slide-out system board. With the desktop machines built in Australia, one advantage is that the Deskpro EN series can be configured to order.

The top of the range Desktop EN series features standard SDRAM expandable up to 384MB, ATI Rage Pro Turbo accelerated graphics port, 16-bit audio and a 24-speed CD-ROM.

Contacts

Apple Tel (02) 9452 8000

Acer Tel 1800 678 577

Compaq Tel (02) 9911 1999

Hewlett-Packard Tel 13 1347


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