New Choices Emerge for W2K Desktops

Gordon Moore, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Intel Corp. (www.intel.com), once postulated that processor speed doubles every 18 months. After 30 years since he made this observation, this evolution remains largely true. A possible corollary to Moore’s law is that processor selection also doubles every 18 months.

As enterprises start to migrate to Windows 2000, many administrators will find that their corporate desktops are inadequate for running Windows 2000 Professional. Microsoft Corp. (www.microsoft.com) says the minimum system requirement is a 133-MHz, Pentium-class processor, 64 MB of RAM, and 2 GB of hard drive space. Experience with Redmond, however, suggests users should at least double these figures.

Many administrators will need to upgrade their desktops as they upgrade their operating system. They will find a different marketplace since the last desktop overhaul.

When Windows NT was released in 1996 it was a given that corporate desktops would run on Intel's Pentium processors. While there was some competitions from vendors such as Cyrix -- now owned by VIA Technologies Inc. (www.via.com ) -- and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD, www.amd.com ) chips from these vendors were limited primarily to low-end consumer machines.

AMD, which recently turned heads by introducing the first 1 GHz processor, is now preparing to take Intel on for the low-end commercial processor market. AMD’s Duron chip, formerly code-named Spitfire, is poised to compete with Intel’s Celeron.

"The Duron, in many ways, emulates the Intel strategy," says Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at the San Jose, Calif.-based Insight 64 group. Like the Celeron, the Duron is not intended to be a chip for high-performance workstations, but a more than adequate chip for most end user needs.

The Celeron is, in many ways, the stepchild of the Pentium III processor. While the Pentium III offers 256K of on-die L2 cache and front side bus (FSB) speeds of 100 and 133 MHz, the Celeron is limited to 128 K of L2 cache and a 66 MHz FSB.

The first Celerons had no L2 cache, and with a few other issues gained a bad reputation. Intel added L2 cache with the Celeron 300A in the fall of 1998, and the Celeron has been slowly earning respect. Intel’s latest Celeron batch is based on the Coppermine processor. The chip boasts speeds of 566 and 600 MHz.

The Duron, which AMD says will ship in June to OEMs, is comparable to the current line of Athlons. Like the Athlon, the Duron will sport a 200-MHz FSB, although Brookwood expects that when AMD ramps up the Athlon’s FSB to 233 MHz, the Duron will stay at 200 MHz.

Brookwood believes Duron is more important for AMD than the Celeron was for Intel. "AMD is going to have to penetrate the business market to compete," he says. Intel already had a firm grasp on the business market when it introduced the Celeron, while AMD’s business was confined to low-end consumers. The launch of Duron signifies AMD’s efforts to distinguish the Athlon as a business capable processor, by offering a second processor for value desktops.

With the hard-to-shake reputation of the Celeron and AMD’s lingering cheap-chips perception, some managers may be skittish about using economy lines for business applications. Although both processors will boast less L2 cache than the tops of the lines, L2 cache is only necessary for computation intensive applications.

"If you’re just doing word processing and using business productivity applications, the added benefit of extra added L2 will be hard to tell," Brookwood suggests. Most corporate users will be fine using the economy processors. Administrators interested in getting the best value for their needs may be pleasantly surprised by Intel and AMD’s new offerings.