New Intel BX chipsets scream on benchmarks

Intel Corp. last week unveiled the long-awaited 440BX chipset and the fastest Pentium II processors to date. The new processors run at speeds of 350 MHz and 400 MHz and take advantage of the new chipset's support for a 100 MHz internal system bus, which significantly boosts overall performance.

The FCW Test Center evaluated two 400 MHz BX-based machines from Compaq Computer Corp. and Micron Electronics Inc. and found the new systems to be up to 49 percent faster than a similarly configured 266 MHz Pentium II system running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT operating system.

In fact, the Micron Millennia XI400 was the fastest PC the test center has ever evaluated. With a final score of 443 on the Business Applications Performance Corp.'s SYSmark/32 score, the XI400 beat Compaq's BX chipset machine by nearly 50 points in every category except desktop presentation.

Overall, Micron's XI400 was 10 percent faster than Compaq's new 440BX/PIIX-4E. Nonetheless, the Compaq system's SYSmark/32 score of 401 was 35 percent faster than IBM Corp.'s PC300XL, which was the fastest 266 MHz Pentium II system the test center has evaluated.

The new chipset and increased bus speed support is heralded by Intel as a major development that will give PC vendors "the ultimate motherboard flexibility," said Dan Francisco, spokesman for the company. "A system bus speed change doesn't come along every day," he said.

In fact, it was 1993 when the company last increased the bus speed to 66 MHz, he said. The new BX chipset will support both 66 MHz and 100 MHz system designs. The new 440BX chip set allows for speedier and more efficient communications between the processor and various internal system components, such as the Accelerated Graphics Port, memory and Peripheral Component Interconnect slots. It also allows one basic motherboard design to support all Pentium II processors, from 233 MHz up to 400 MHz.

A slew of federal PC and server vendors are lining up to champion Intel's latest technology, announcing new products incorporating both the 350 MHz and the 400 MHz processors. These vendors include Compaq, Dell Computer Corp., Digital Equipment Corp., Gateway 2000 Inc., IBM, Micron and NEC Computer Systems Division.

Jim Connal, federal sales manager for Gateway 2000, said it was "tough to guess" what percentage of Gateway sales will end up coming from the new BX-based systems. But for the buyer, Connal said, it means "more technology at a Gateway price." The new systems from Gateway already are available, Connal said, but they won't be on the General Services Administration schedule for a few weeks.

Dell is using the new processing power and the BX release to help prepare customers for the next iteration of Microsoft's Windows NT operating system. "A lot of our customers are moving to NT," said Jodi Brown, federal group manager. "So we see the BX chipset positioning them for the release of NT 5.0."

Roughly 80 percent of Dell's current shipping mix is made up of Pentium II systems, Brown said. "We see our government customers buying more high-end systems rather than looking for a good deal," she said. "By the time the government reaches the [third-quarter] buying frenzy, we will probably have an attach rate of close to 50 percent" for Pentium II BX systems, Brown said.

Federal IT marketing consultant Robert Guerra said that by the end of the fiscal year Pentium II BX systems could account for 35 percent to 45 percent of government sales. "The reception in government [of these systems] will be well above what it will be in industry," he said.

"The government always buys the biggest and fastest because [it needs] it," Guerra said. "To do image processing, workflow and video teleconferencing, you have to have high-powered processors."

It is this processing power that most government users need to take advantage of today's complex software tools, Francisco said. "The 100 MHz bus gives you the headroom for today's and tomorrow's applications." When asked about the rate of development and the timeline for the next bus speed increase, Francisco would not go into detail but said that "it probably won't be for another five years."

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