Tech talk:Business PCs, cheap as chips

Competition in the processor market is forcing down the cost of business-capable PCs.

Competition in the processor market is forcing down the cost of business-capable PCs.

By Christmas, the £299 business PC could be an interesting proposition, capable of doing everything most business users need.

In fact, the £299 business PC is almost here today, you just can't see it. But walk the aisles at your local supermarket, pop into a high-street retailer or phone a mail order supplier and you will find you can get a usable PC for £499 including a monitor, delivery (if appropriate) and VAT. Knock off £100 for the monitor you don't want, subtract the VAT, and you are already close.

These £499 machines are relatively slow, of course: most have 1.2GHz or 1.3GHz AMD Duron or Intel Celeron processors. And they don't have enough memory. Nonetheless, they are probably faster than anything you bought more than 18 months ago.

Happily, the next generation of cheap PCs will have all the power you need, thanks to a 1.7GHz Intel Celeron chip that fits a PGA478 socket.

Well, I would guess that is the way Intel wants you to see it. Actually it is our old friend the Pentium 4, previously known as Willamette. This was Intel's top-of-the-range processor when it was launched in April 2001. The only thing you have lost from the chip is half of what was a 256Kbyte cache memory.

Because the "new" Celeron is an "old" Pentium 4, it can work with a wide range of chip sets, including Intel's 845G and 845GL. This means you can have Intel Extreme graphics on the motherboard.

If you need a new PC for playing Quake III Arena, this is not the way to go. You should buy a good graphics card instead. However, Intel Extreme's on-board 3D graphics capabilities look good enough for many games and all non-specialist business purposes.

The "new" 1.7GHz processor also works with faster types of memory chips, such as DDR SDRam (double data rate synchronous dynamic random access memory) and RDRam (Rambus dynamic Ram), which the old 1.3GHz Celeron could not. Finally, it has a 400MHz bus, compared with the 1.3GHz Celeron's 100MHz.

The result is step-change in the power of cheap computers that makes them great value for money.

There is nothing altruistic about Intel's approach. It is normal for top-of-the-range chips to slide to the bottom of the range as clock speeds increase. It could also be seen as a response to competitive pressure from AMD's Duron processor. Either way, the arrival of PCs with P4-based processors sets a benchmark that limits the amount suppliers can charge for faster models. And that means you don't even have to buy one to benefit.

Jack Schofield is computer editor at the Guardian

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