The Fast Lane
It's a happy coincidence: just as businesses are getting back in the technology-buying mood, PCs are about to achieve one of those performance milestones that signals a real buying opportunity. A key feature of this spring's desktop releases will be Intel's Grantsdale chip set, which will complete the platform shift begun with February's introduction of Prescott-class Pentium 4 processors.
It's not just about galloping clock speeds, which Intel plans to push toward 4GHz by year-end. There's a generational shift in most PC subsystems that define a new platform with the headroom needed for continued performance growth. You'll be able to sustain a companywide hardware image for longer, cut operating costs, and extend the time between new PC shopping trips.
The key word is "double." Starting with the processor itself, Prescott Pentium 4s will carry twice the fast on-chip cache as their Northwood predecessors, and there's a similar doubling in the size of the front-side bus--the pipe carrying data from the processor to a new generation of double-data-rate main memory. Memory as fast as 533MHz will be available this spring, although you'll probably want to save a few dollars by choosing slower speeds for most company desktops.
Moving outward, processor and memory will connect to a faster generation of graphics adapters and other I/O subsystems over a revolutionary new PC bus. PCI Express replaces the decade-old PCI bus with multiple channels that can be combined for demanding tasks like graphics processing. But even the average, single-channel task will benefit from twice the dedicated bandwidth, forestalling future bottlenecks.
Add improvements like serial ATA and DVD rewritable drives, USB 2.0 and Firewire (IEEE 1394), and you'll find just about every aspect of PC architecture has been improved since the last great refresh of business desktops.
Also, a sign of these networked times: The new Pentium 4s will include not only gigabit Ethernet, but also 802.11x wireless connectivity right out of the box. So while we're accustomed to measuring PC progress by clock speeds, there's a lot more to consider in upcoming desktop releases.
Cluck for Your Buck
"This year is unusual in that so many things are changing simultaneously," says Dean McCarron, principal analyst for Mercury Research, a research firm specializing in the PC component market, in Cave Creek, Arizona. "It's a fundamental change to PC infrastructure."
That makes apples-to-apples price comparisons between new PCs and past generations trickier, he adds. It's one thing to price PCs by differing CPU speed, memory and storage. It's more difficult to put a dollar figure on the kind of under-the-hood improvements Prescott and Grantsdale bring to the party.
Legal commitments prevent PC makers from going public with future designs. But expect business PCs clustered around the popular $1,000 price point--systems like Dell's OptiPlex or Hewlett-Packard's new Presario SR1000T--to gain faster clock speeds and system functionality this spring without more than a small, temporary price premium.
The time-honored PC shopping tradition of getting a lot more for a little less will continue, McCarron says, especially in light of Intel's new manufacturing process. It allows Intel to reduce the size of Prescott components from 0.13 microns to 90 nanometers, lower costs, and quickly scale up chip production.
Historically, much of the savings achieved by chip and PC makers has filtered down to you. A ramp-up in the supply of Prescotts--perhaps to parry a rampup in AMD Athlons--can't hurt your budget. When introduced in February, Prescott chip prices were on a par with their Northwood predecessors.
While Intel's market share is still well north of 80 percent and holding, you find particularly competitive price tags on Intel chips for which AMD has a credible alternative. So whether or not you ever buy, say, an Athlon-based HP Presario, tip a glass to AMD sometime for putting more cluck in your PC-buying buck.
Time to Refresh?
The technology race never ends, but we're approaching a major mile marker. Obviously, not every staffer in your organization needs an optimally configured PC. The fastest desktops are usually reserved for managers who multitask or technicians with computation-intensive applications in areas like finance or graphics.
On the other hand, if you have a decent number of aging desktops, a large-scale refresh wouldn't hurt. Lengthening life cycles have enabled many companies to squeeze up to four years of use from their PCs. But software demands eventually catch up, resulting in increasing support costs and declining productivity in later years. Most analysts recommend minimizing IT costs by replacing desktops in bunches and more frequently than needed, usually just before three-year warranties run out.
Also, this is America's first large refresh in the broadband era. Whereas dial-up modems used to create a bottleneck to Internet access, broadband is the bus to an increasingly important computing dimension: always-on interactions between desktops and the Web.
Ever notice how zippy your Web browsing becomes when you replace an older PC with a more powerful one? Faster processors, memory and storage will help those multimedia downloads and budding applications like VoIP and videoconferencing. They could always use a little more bandwidth and processing power.
Then again, who couldn't?
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor. Write to him at email@example.com.