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Monday, November 01, 2004
Intel ratchets up game chip

Intel on Monday launched its latest Pentium 4 Extreme Edition processor for high-performance desktop PCs, such as game systems.

As previously reported, the new chip runs at 3.46GHz, a slight increase in clock speed from the previous version, and incorporates 2MB of cache that enlarges its main pool of onboard memory to boost performance. The chip also features a 1,066MHz front-side bus, which speeds up the movement of data back and forth from the chip to memory.

Mainstream Pentium 4s have 1MB of main cache and an 800MHz bus--though Intel, which has redrawn its processor road map several times this year, said in October that it will step Pentium 4 chips up to 2MB of cache next year. At the same time, Intel said it had abandoned plans to deliver a 4GHz Pentium 4.

Processors such as the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition and Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon 64 FX represent the peak of performance in the desktop market and appear mainly in game machines fitted with the latest graphics cards and high-performance storage systems to render games with the greatest speed. AMD's new Athlon 64 FX-55 chip hit the market on Oct. 19, meaning that a number of new high-performance PCs are now available for gamers.

PC makers generally don't sell large numbers of the computers, which often cost well more than $2,000. But the game PC market segment is considered to be one of the most profitable segments of the desktop PC business, both for manufacturers and for AMD and Intel, which both charge extra for their high-performance chips.

The high-performance game PCs can also create a so-called halo effect that elevates manufacturers' more pedestrian desktops in the minds of consumers, not unlike the way automakers use sleek sports cars to elevate the image of their sedans.

"That's the whole concept of a halo (product). Whether its (Intel's) Extreme Edition or the Athlon FX, they serve to establish the leadership association and, hopefully, that rubs off on everything else," Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research, said in a recent interview.

At least one PC maker announced on Monday plans to offer the latest Extreme Edition chip.

Dell plans to begin taking orders on its fourth-generation Dimension XPS system on Monday. The machine will start at $2,749 when fitted with the 3.46GHz Extreme Edition processor, 512MB of RAM and an 80GB hard drive, a company representative said in an e-mail. However, buyers are likely to order the machine with much more memory and hard-drive capacity, as well as top-of-the-line graphics cards, which will increase its price significantly.

Computer makers such as Alienware, Falcon Northwest and even Hewlett-Packard offer the Athlon 64 FX and have offered previous versions of the Extreme Edition Pentium 4 in their high-end PCs as well.

One snag, however, has already arisen for the new Extreme Edition Pentium 4. Reviews of the chip--an important consideration for would-be buyers--are fairly scathing. Many conclude that the new chip brings little in the way of extra performance.

"The 3.46EE does manage to outperform its 3.4GHz/800MHz (front-side bus) predecessor, but the margin of improvement is negligible," Anand Lal Shimpi of computer enthusiast Web site Anantech wrote. Several other reviewers echoed similar sentiment.

The 3.46GHz Extreme Edition chip lists for $999, while the Athlon 64 FX-55 lists for $827. Street prices are likely to vary.

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