HOW TO BE A WINNER IN THE CHIP WARS Lower prices, intense competition create new opportunities for consumers


Cheaper microprocessors are one factor in the latest computer price war. Intel Corp., which has been the dominant supplier of PC microprocessors for the past decade, is being challenged by several rivals who claim to make microprocessors that work the same as or better than Intel's parts but at lower cost.

In response, Intel has cut prices sharply and introduced a variety of new chips.

Lower prices and competition work to the benefit of computer buyers. But many computer buyers, experienced as well as novice, are concerned about using computers built around microprocessors other than Intel's.

The current competitors are Advanced Micro Devices, Cyrix-Texas Instruments, Chips and Technologies, and International Business Machines.

The basic question is this: If a computer is built around a non-Intel chip, will it work the same as a computer based on the industry-standard Intel chip? In computer terms, will the computer be 100 percent compatible?

"There are differences in design, but I'm not aware of any differences in quality or compatibility," said Michael Slater, editor and publisher of the Microprocessor Report, a newsletter published in Sebastopol, Calif.

In other words, some chips may have special features that set them apart from others in terms of performance, but all should be able to run popular software without problems.

To use an automotive analogy, the engines may be made by different companies, and they may differ in horsepower and other technical features, but they all use unleaded gas and have 50,000-mile warranties.

Computer techies speak of chips in terms like 32-bit addressing, complex or reduced instruction sets, cache memory and floating-point units. In real life, though, experienced computer owners have discovered that one can live a rich, rewarding life without ever seeing the actual brains of the computer, let alone probing them.

The trick is getting the right level of performance at the right price.

Today the most popular choices include, in approximate order of ascending power and price, the 386SX, 386SL, 386SLC, 386DX, 486SLC, 486SX, 486DX and 486DX/2, each available in several speed variations.

A judge ruled last year that Intel's own naming scheme for microprocessors -- 286, 386, 486 and so on -- could be used by rival companies. Intel, sorely peeved, vowed that the next generation of Intel chips would not be named the 586.

The bigger the number, the more powerful the chip. The same holds true for speed ratings, at least within the same type of chips. A designation of 486-33 means the chip operates at a speed of 33 megahertz (millions of cycles a second).

A 386 chip running at 25 MHz will do its job a little bit faster than a 386 chip running at 16 MHz. The rule gets fuzzy when chip generations are crossed. Advanced Micro asserts that its 40-MHz 386 is faster than some 486 chips, for example.

Also within generations, chips with the DX suffix are more powerful than chips with the SX suffix. The SX chips work on the inside like DX chips, but they communicate with the rest of the computer at half-speed.

The 486SX chip lacks a floating-point math unit, which is included in the 486DX. The math unit is useful for big spreadsheet calculations and some advanced graphics chores. So, if graphics and numbers are important, get the DX.

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