March 24, 1997 10:00 AM ET
Not so fast, Pentium II
New chip is not expected to outdo Pentium Pro at high end
By Lisa DiCarlo

  Intel Corp.'s forthcoming Pentium II may be a boon for mainstream business computing, but more advanced workstation users may find its performance lags behind the Pentium Pro.

Although the processor, due in May, will run at higher clock speeds than the Pentium Pro, the chip is twice as slow as its predecessor in accessing Level 2 cache, several OEM sources said.

Because of that drawback, the performance of a 233MHz Pentium II with a 512KB cache option is at or below that of a 200MHz Pentium Pro with 256KB cache, sources said.

Despite the performance, Pentium II-based systems will be priced higher than Pentium Pro offerings.

"It's a difficult position to explain to workstation customers why they should pay more for a slower system," said an executive with a Top 5 PC maker.

In addition, Pentium II and its companion 440FX chip set support a maximum of 500MB of RAM, the sources said. While half a gigabyte of RAM will satisfy most mainstream users, workstation users doing three-dimensional rendering and modeling may find the RAM limitation a problem.

Some X86-based PC makers are already giving users that kind of computing power. IBM Personal Computer Co., for example, has a 1GB RAM option on its recently announced Pentium Pro-based Z Pro Professional Workstation.

Deschutes, the faster "shrink" of Pentium II, and its forthcoming companion 440LX chip set will support up to 2GB of RAM, sources said.

Pentium II not up to the task

Workstation hang-ups with the forthcoming processor:

  • Takes twice as long to access the chip's cache as with the Pentium Pro
  • Chip uses old chip set (440FX) that doesn't support AGP or SDRAM
  • Chip supports maximum of 500MB of RAM

Intel officials in Santa Clara, Calif., declined to comment on specific Pentium II characteristics, since the product has yet to be officially announced. But they said the processor will not be geared toward the high-end workstation market.

Despite Intel's positioning of Pentium II as a nonworkstation processor, several companies, including IBM and Digital Equipment Corp., will release dual-Pentium II workstations in the first half of the year, said sources familiar with the companies' plans.

Intel and major PC makers are pouring considerable resources into the potentially huge Intel-based workstation market.

Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM and Compaq Computer Corp. are fighting a fierce battle for the minds and dollars of Unix workstation users migrating to Windows NT-based systems.

Intel, in fact, quietly established a workstation division, based in Dupont, Wash., earlier this month that focuses on hardware and software technologies for 3-D workstations, officials said.

This week, Intel will host a "visual computing" symposium in Santa Clara, Calif., where it will discuss technological progress made in the workstation area.

At the symposium, companies such as S3 Inc. and ATI Graphics Inc. will demonstrate 3-D graphics products that support Intel's forthcoming AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) bus.

By year's end, Intel will release a high-end 3-D graphics board, the 740GT, that also supports AGP, sources said.

Despite the performance issues, some Unix workstation users are quickly moving to an Intel/NT combination.

"Maintenance of Unix workstations is horrendous," said Greg Murphy, director of data and information products at Waters Corp., in Milford, Mass. "We're moving toward and Intel/NT [environment] and so far, we haven't seen any [performance] bottlenecks. It's also a more efficient platform. We're looking for lower cost, good price performance and easier management."

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