March 18, 1997 6:30 PM ET

Digital steps up to plate against Intel
By Robert Lemos

  Digital Equipment Corp. stepped up to the plate Monday with its new Alpha 21164PC, a lower-cost, lower-power version of its signature microprocessor.

Digital aims to hit a home run in the high-end Windows NT desktop market, but it faces Intel Corp., which has already struck out the last two contenders - MIPS Technologies Inc. and the IBM/Apple Computer Inc./Motorola Inc. PowerPC.

Digital has prepared itself well for this trip to the plate, said Mike Feibus, a principal at Mercury Research Inc.

Still, "they won't be taking over," Feibus said. "2 [percent] to 3 percent of the PC microprocessor market is probably what they are shooting for."

The new Alpha chip is aimed at the high-end desktop market. The price point is similar to crowd with a price point similar to Intel's Corp.'s Pentium PRO chips.

There are some 1,800 Windows NT applications that run native on Alpha. But certain key desktop applications, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Office, must be run under emulation, which generally slows performance. Digital's FX!32 emulator runs all 32-bit Windows NT applications, while older applications rely on Windows NT's built-in emulator. Alpha is billed as 1.5 to 2 times faster than Pentium Pro, but emulating a program can slow this down by 30 to 50 percent, cutting any performance gains.

The new Alpha chip also does not support the MMX standard, though it has motion video instructions to support broadcast-quality video, digital video disk and videoconferencing applications.

Despite these drawbacks, Vobis Microcomputer, a leading German PC maker, and Enorex Microsystems Inc. have announced plans to put the new chip in desktops.

Microsoft also propped up Digital's game plan when it pledged on Friday to support the Alpha microprocessor's memory architecture in the upcoming Windows NT 5.0. Microsoft has previously announced that it will release two components of Office 97 -- Word and Excel -- for the Alpha processor in the second quarter of this year.

Given the obstacles it faces, whether the new chip can get on base remains to be seen.

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