486s on the market today are still a very good value


A letter came in the mail this week that poses a common question:

"I have a Tandy 1000SX computer that I bought several years ago, and I'm thinking of buying a new one. I was going to buy a new IBM PS/1, which has a 486 processor chip. But I read an article that there's a new 586 chip coming out. I don't want to buy a computer that's going to be obsolete a year from now. Do you think I should buy the PS/1 or wait until the 586 is available?"

I could make you wait till the end of a long-winded technical essay for the answer. Or worse, I could print it upside down in tiny type at the end of the column, like Parade magazine. But you're probably pressed for time, so here it is:

The PS/1 is a fine machine for home and small business work, although you can probably find a bit more bang for the buck. If you like it, buy it. As for the "586," I wouldn't bother unless I'd just won the lottery.

Those who want to know why can read on.

* Many people who bought PCs

during the mid-1980s are finding that their computers are coming to the end of their useful lives. Some are breaking down (although computers have proved themselves remarkably durable). But most, particularly first-generation PCs that use the original Intel 8088 processor and its cousins, just don't have the horsepower to run today's software.

+ Graphical environments such

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Microsoft Windows demand newer, faster processors, huge hard disk drives and high-resolution color monitors. Today's games won't run on most older machines, and even such stalwarts of the DOS world such as WordPerfect now require more computing power.

The question is how much power you need for your work today, how much you'll need tomorrow, and how much you're willing to pay. Luckily, in today's market you can buy a machine that will last quite a while without breaking the bank.

The IBM PS/1 line is at the bottom end of today's scale in price and performance, although the bottom and top are a lot more compressed now than they were a few years ago.

It's hard to make any generalization about PS/1 computers and IBM's slightly more expensive Value Point line because IBM and its competitors are announcing new models every six hours or so. But these machines generally use some variant of the Intel 80486DX or the cheaper and slower 80486SX microprocessor, and they're generally available for less than $2,000.

The 486 chip is the standard of the business world today. The low-end SX chips running at 25 mHz will run Microsoft Windows PTC at a tolerable speed, as long as you aren't trying anything taxing, such as retouching scanned photographs or using high-end graphic design software. If you're still running WordPerfect for DOS, these machines will make you think you died and went to heaven.

Computers with 486DX chips running at 33, 50 or 66 mHz will generally handle anything you can throw at them. Only high-end desktop publishing, computer aided design (CAD) programs and handful of jet fighter simulation games really require the top end of this spectrum. Even there, hard disk speed and advanced video adapters may be just as important as raw processing power in determining performance.

But time and technology march on. The Intel Corporation, which invented the chips used in most IBM-compatible computers, has announced yet another processor. While many people call it the 586 (the next step up), Intel is calling it the Pentium. There's a simple reason for this. Intel lost a court battle with makers of

80386 clones over the right to secure a trademark for a number.

The Pentium/586 is far more powerful than the 486 chip it replaces. Technically, it packs more

than 3 million transistors, compared to 1.2 million for the 486 chip, and it's capable of executing 112 million instructions per second, more than twice as many as the 486. It has a 64-bit internal data bus, which is twice the size of the 486, and its built in floating-point math co-processor is vastly improved. There are other goodies that make the chipheads drool, but the bottom line is what the Pentium can actually do for the average user. PC Magazine ran tests on some early Pentium machines and found that they ran about 70 percent faster than the best 486 machines.

This doesn't mean your application software will run twice as fast, but the difference will be noticeable, particularly for CAD applications and other math-intensive programs. While Pentium computers will run any software designed for older machines, computer manufacturers will have to redesign their hardware, and programmers will have to rewrite their software to take advantage of the Pentium's advanced capabilities.

The Pentium processor itself is expensive, and other hardware changes are, too. Figure $5,000 and up for Pentium computers at the start.

Major Pentium-specific software is also unlikely any time soon. Publishers write for the biggest market, and they're just catching up with the capabilities of 80386 computers with processors that are now two generations old.

My guess is that Pentium computers will find an early niche in the market for high-end graphic workstations. For the average home or business user, a Pentium machine today doesn't make much sense. It's like buying a Maserati to commute a half-mile to the office.

Over the next two to three years, the cost of a Pentium computer will come down. Factory yields will improve, but more important, other manufacturers will come out with less expensive clones of Intel's 80486 chips. When others cloned Intel's 80386 processor, the company chopped the price of its 486 dramatically.

The same thing could happen over the next year or so, driving down Pentium prices. And when Intel develops yet another generation of processors (The Sexium? Sounds goooood to me), the process will begin again.

Meanwhile, the 486s on the market are excellent values, and they're likely to stay that way for a while.

(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)


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