Personal Computing

Should you worry if Intel is not inside?

The prices sure are enticing. Today you can buy a brand new personal computer for little more than $500, the least expensive they've ever been. But if you look closely, you'll find that these super-cheap PCs are missing something: the widely advertised "Intel Inside" logo on the box. The computer superstore MEI-Micro Center, for instance, is selling its store-labeled PowerSpec 2030, a PC that's powered not by an Intel Pentium central processing unit (CPU) but by a Cyrix MediaGX MMX chip. The specs are decent. The system runs at 233 MHz and comes with 29.5 MB of memory, a 2.1 gigabyte hard drive, a 24-speed CD-ROM drive, and a 33.6 kbit/sec modem. The included software -- Windows 98, Microsoft Works, Microsoft Money, and Microsoft Entertainment Pack -- handles all the basics. The cost, with a 14-in. monitor, is just $518. Industry heavyweights also are getting into the non-Intel action. Compaq is selling its Presario 2266, a PC based on the 300-MHz Cyrix MII chip, through office superstores such as Staples and consumer electronics stores such as Best Buy. The system is more powerful than Micro Center's economy model, and though it costs more, it's still well under $1,000, which was considered a breakthrough price just last year. It features 64 MB of memory, a 4.0 gigabyte hard drive, a 32-speed CD-ROM drive, a 56 kbit/sec modem, and 3D sound. With a 14-in. monitor, after the $100 mail-in rebate, it costs $878. You can find other low-cost computers sold today with other non-Intel CPUs, particularly the K6-2 chip from AMD, which is used by Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., and many other PC makers. The numbers show that Intel's competitors are making considerable progress in the under-$1,000 market, less so in the PC market as a whole. According to ZD Market Intelligence, 68% of PCs sold in September 1998 that cost $1,000 or less were powered by AMD chips, 16.2% by Intel chips, and 15.6% by Cyrix chips. Yet during the first half of 1998 Intel still controlled 84% of the entire computer market, according to MicroDesign Resources. The Intel brand, after all, carries a lot of weight among some buyers, particularly corporate buyers. And non-Intel PCs do pose additional risk, if slight. When software and peripheral makers test their products, they typically do so on Intel systems, says Rob Enderle, vice president and analyst with Giga Information Group, a market research firm in Cambridge, Mass. Still, the non-Intel systems are thoroughly tested by their respective manufacturers, so the chance of any given system having compatibility problems is virtually nil. The possibility of problems rises slightly when you do such things as replace the video or sound card, reformat the hard drive, or add a new hard drive, which are tasks typically undertaken by information technology pros or more advanced users. You should have no problems with software either, though as with hardware occasional problems do pop up. Minor glitches were reported involving later versions of Windows 95 and 350 MHz or faster K6-2 chips from AMD. Problems also can result if a game or other program does something unusual such as bypass Windows to obtain better performance. In this case, you may not be able to take advantage of all the program's advanced features. In terms of reliability, it's a dead heat, says Roger Kay, an analyst with International Data Corp., a market research firm in Framingham, Mass. Non-Intel chips "follow the same kind of failure curve as any silicon part. If it's going to die, it's going to die young. But if it works for a day or two, it will work for years." The guarantee of quality by a CPU brand name is more marketing hype than anything else, says Kay. Yet this fear of lower quality keeps many in the corporate world from buying outside the Intel standard. "This fear is statistically irrational," says Kay. Attitudes are changing. Another study by ZD Market Intelligence, published in August 1998, showed that 34% of the 2,624 companies surveyed said they were considering switching over to AMD- or Cyrix-based systems. Still, with even a small possibility of problems, it can make sense to take precautions. "If you're buying a non-Intel based PC, it's best to buy from a branded vendor, such as Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, or IBM," says Enderle. "Then you can be fairly sure you'll get support if problems arise. If you buy a 'white box' from a guy on the corner, it's best to buy an Intel-based PC." Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway (1994, Alpha Books). He can be reached at [email protected] or http://members.home.net/reidgold.

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