Computers in Libraries
Vol. 21, No. 7 • Jul/Aug 2001 

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Personal Computing Space: Specifications Subject to Change
by Eric Flower

Before you hit the checkout line with your new computer system, check out our annual article about computing trends and expectations. It might help you make smarter purchases.

Welcome to my ninth Computers in Libraries Buyer's Guide review of the Wintel marketplace. And welcome to a rapidly changing computing space. Today we travel an evolutionary path leading away from personal computers and operating systems that mainly support applications that generate printed pages, and we head toward a future filled with the smart tools needed to create a high-bandwidth, Net-centric, media-rich environment. At the end of the path, in a global computing space governed by Moore's Law, Metcalfe's Law, and the Bandwidth Scaling Law, location means nothing, and time means everything. Microsoft knows it, and so does Intel.

Space-Time Solutions
Intel is so sure it knows what's coming next that it built the Pentium 4 to a different set of design outcomes than earlier versions. The Pentium 4s won't perform any better than the equally fast Pentium IIIs or Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) Athlons on regular Microsoft Office productivity tasks, but they will perform substantially better when building and manipulating high-end multimedia and Internet applications. "If you look at all aspects of the design—high speeds, deep pipeline, the SSE2 instruction set, the relatively small data cache, lots of bus bandwidth—it all points to high-performance media processing," according to Kevin Krewell, senior analyst with MicroDesign Resources, in "P4: Whole New Ball of Silicon," by Cade Metz, ZDNet PC Magazine, December 28, 2000 at,6755,2668398,00.html.

Intel underscored this change in design direction when it also announced the demise of the Pentium III on the desktop by the end of 2001. This was a dramatic departure from past practice where the introduction of a new processor meant only that the older one would become less expensive while remaining readily available for some time.

Meanwhile, Microsoft was announcing, defining, and redefining its .NET initiative: "The best way to define .NET is to think about what .NET is going to do. Microsoft believes a silent shift to distributed computing is happening. Over the last couple of years, people have been laying fat pipes to the point where bandwidth is a lot less limited than it has been in the past. Combined with the Moore's Law effect where the processing power doubles every eighteen months and the prices are halved, you now have the option to do really distributed computing for the first time: because bandwidth is less expensive, you can do the processing wherever it is most optimal.... So .NET is aimed at accelerating this next generation of distributed computing." This explanation comes from "The Simplest Way to Define .NET" by Sanjay Parthasarathy, vice president of platform strategy, Microsoft Corp., December 21, 2000 at

"End users interact with their software through .NET experiences, which deliver a new type of interaction—a dramatically more personal, integrated experience derived from connected XML Web services, and delivered through the new breed of smart devices." You see the word "smart" everywhere in the Microsoft .NET literature, and you see the present tense used as though it were already here. Smart devices will know about your .NET identity, profile, and data. They will be responsive to bandwidth constraints and network services, and they will present applications and data optimized for hardware form factor. Smart devices also will use XML (eXtensible Markup Language), SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol, which provides a way for applications to communicate with each other independent of platform), and UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration—a Web-based distributed directory). For more about the .NET initiative, see ".NET Q&A: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions" at For more definitions, see the Webopedia at

In more concrete news, Microsoft has released the beta version of the Windows XP (XP for "experience") operating system that will ease Internet connection setup; automate Net-based operating system updates; "heal" itself after breakdowns; and improve the creation, manipulation, and presentation of video, sound, and images in the Windows environment. In addition, it should be more reliable than Windows 95/98 because it's built on NT/2000 technology. Eventually XP will power the .NET experience on the desktop. The final release version of Windows XP is scheduled for October 25, 2001. To keep informed, visitthe XP home page at
Intel underscored this change in design direction when it also announced the demise of the Pentium III on the desktop by the end of 2001.
Intel's IA-32 Space
Here in real time, today's computer buyer has to know where on the evolutionary path he or she is, where the organization is, and where everybody is going in pursuit of the organization's mission. Knowing this will almost immediately define the kind of computer to specify for the short and longer term. Fortunately there's a simple test that makes it easy: Ask yourself if anyone has made, is experimenting with, or is talking about doing streaming video for whatever reason to advance the organization's mission. If so, your organization is making, or is aboutto make, the transition to a high-bandwidth, Net-centric, media-rich environment, which means you'll require some heavy-duty computing power. On the other hand, if you only see a need to run Microsoft Office while also being connected to the Net for relatively low-bandwidth tasks, nearly any currently available PC will do.

The Intel Architecture 32-bit (IA-32) PC marketplace currently breaks down quite nicely into three segments: 1) budget or value PCs built around the Intel Celeronand AMD Duron CPUs (less than $1,000),2) mainstream systems built around the Intel Pentium III and AMD Athlon ($1,000 to $1,500), and 3) the performance market built around the Pentium 4 and the higher-speed Athlons (over $1,500). Here's what the manufacturers have to say about the purpose and markets of the five processors we are most likely to encounter in the IA-32 computing space in the foreseeable future.

  • Intel Celeron from "Intel Celeron Processor Tech Info" at "The Intel Celeron processor is designed for basic PC desktops and notebooks, and is binary compatible with previous generation Intel architecture processors. TheIntel Celeron processor offers the dependability you expect from Intel at an exceptional value. Systems based on Intel Celeron processors also include the latest features to simplify system management and lower the cost of ownership for home environments."

  • AMD Duron from "AMD Duron Processor Overview" at "The latest workhorse in AMD's processor portfolio, the AMD Duron processor enables a PC solution optimized for value-conscious business and home users. Specifically, its forward-thinking design provides the capability and flexibility necessary to meet current and future computing needs. In this respect, systems based on the AMD Duron processor offer an outstanding level of purchasing confidence to those in the market for an affordable yet capable desktop computer system."

  • Intel Pentium III from "Building Blocks: Mainstream PC Platform" at "The Intel Pentium III processor integrates the P6 Dynamic Execution microarchitecture, Dual Independent Bus (DIB) Architecture, a multi-transaction system bus, Intel MMX media enhancement technology and the Intel Processor Serial Number. With great performance for the Internet, the connected home, and multitasking environments, Intel Pentium III processors are targeted at the range of mainstream consumer and business users."

  • AMD Athlon from "You Have the Power: AMD Athlon Processor Product Brief" at "The AMD Athlon processor provides exceptional processing power on real-world, mainstream Microsoft Windows compatible software, as well as computation-intensive applications for high-end desktops. These high-end workstation applications include digital photo editing, digital video, commercial 3D modeling, image compression, soft DVD, CAD, and speech recognition."

  • Intel Pentium 4 from "Intel Pentium 4 Processor Product Overview" at "The Pentium 4 processor is designed to deliver performance across applications and usages where end users can truly appreciate and experience the performance. These applications include Internet audio and streaming video, image processing, video content creation, speech, 3D, CAD, games, multi-media,and multi-tasking user environments. The Intel Pentium 4 processor delivers this world-class performance for consumer enthusiast and business professional desktop users as well as for entry-level workstation users."
For the most up-to-date information on these and other processors, including plans for new product introductions, visit AMD's home page at and Intel's home page at

Performance Space
While it's not easy to compare performance of CPUs from different manufacturers, or even across model lines from the same manufacturer, at least one organization, MTek Computing Consulting,tries to do it with its CPU Scorecard at

The CPU Scorecard benchmarks are based on Intel's iCOMP performance index, a combined rating of integer, floating-point, Internet (Java), and multimedia performance. And, as the CPU Scorecard site states, "... flawed as they are, CPU benchmarks can arguably provide the mostimportant information about how fast a computer will ... well, compute!" Read all about the Intel iCOMP index in the "iCOMP Index 3.0 Performance Brief: A Simplified Measure of Relative Processor Performance May 2000" at
Moreover, Pentium 4 systems may cost as little as $1,000 by the end of the calendar year.
The CPU Scorecard site publishes three useful CPU metrics. The first is a raw performance number based on the Intel iCOMP 3.0 index. The second is a relative percentage based on the raw performance number. The CPU with the highest raw performance number is assigned a score of 100 percent and all others are rated as a percentage of that score. The third score is a ratio of price and performance that can show the best relative value.

On May 26, 2001, the best performing CPUs were a 1.7-GHz Intel Pentium 4 and a 1.33-GHz AMD Athlon. No doubt there will be changes as Intel and AMD release faster processors. The best mainstream price/performance ratio was generated by 1.2- and 1.1-GHz AMD Athlons and by 1-GHz and 866-MHz Pentium IIIs. The best value price/performance ratio was generated by an 800-MHz AMD Duron. This is intuitively reasonable as the best deals have traditionally come from those CPUs a step or two behind the latest offerings.

While the CPU Scorecard numbers are useful for some purposes, what really counts is how the computer system will perform when all components and software are working together on your tasks. Hardware and software should be well matched with no bottlenecks. One recognized measure of a computer system's performance on both office productivity and Internet content creation is SYSmark 2001 from the Business Applications PerformanceCorp. (BAPCo). BAPCo is a nonprofit consortium of leading computerindustry publications, independent testing labs, PC hardware manufacturers, semiconductor manufacturers, and software publishers. Its SYSmark 2001 permits comparisons between Intel Architecture systems based on the performance of real-world applications running under Windows 2000, Windows 98 SE, and Windows 98 Millennium Edition. See for more information about BAPCo and the SYSmark 2001 benchmark.

Specification Space
In the past we have relied on the PC System Design Guide for basic information and direction on specifications for critical components including CPU speed, cache size, RAM, and storage. Co-authored by Intel and Microsoft in consultation withthe industry, the guide lists features that the hardware industry must consider when designing PCs and peripherals for an optimal user experience in the Windows environment. The latest version, published on November 2, 2000, goes into effect with the release to manufacturing of the XP operating system. It applies to PCs that ship in the second half of 2001. Table 1 provides a summary of the hardware requirements for a generic desktop computer with variations for high-performance workstations and portables.

The 2001 guide will be the last. "Intel and Microsoft will partner with the industry to develop future design guidelinesthrough individual white papers. There are no plans for Intel and Microsoft to co-author a comprehensive set of design guidelines after PC 2001 System Design Guide." You can download an HTML, Word, or PDF version of the 2001 guide from
Smart devices ... will be responsive to bandwidth constraints and network services, and they will present applications and data optimized for hardware form factor.

Microsoft has built on the foundation of the PC 2001 System Design Guide and circulated a PC Design Checklist for Windows XP for comment. Industry review version 0.9 was released on April 18, 2001. The checklist "provides manufacturers with a list of capabilities and components that deliver the best performance and reliability, and that deliver the exciting new end-to-end personal computing experiences that characterize a Windows XP optimum PC system."

It's plain from reading the PC Design Checklist that Microsoft believes capture, manipulation, and presentation of video will be the next big thing. A system will need a high-end processor, lots of memory, plenty of fast storage, and a powerful video subsystem to perform well. The checklist offers these guidelines beyond a fast processor: at least 128 MB of RAM (256 MB or more is better according to early press reports), a minimum of 40 GB of 7,200 RPM hard disk storage, and 4X AGP with 32 MB minimum (64 MB recommended) of video RAM for the video subsystem. The checklist also calls for both DVD and CD-RW drives.

Other checklist highlights include the end of legacy devices and a move toward the exclusive use of USB and IEEE-1394 connections for peripherals of all kinds. Checklist version 0.7 recommends that, "The design of a Windows XP optimum PC system should not allow easy end-customer access to any PCI or other system expansion card slots. Instead, expansion is provided through external connectors. (Internal PCI bus and devices must meet Windows Logo Program requirements.)" This has been softened in version 0.9 to a recommendation that the best practice is to implement a legacy-free design. Legacy-free means the elimination of many elements of the original PC architecture. This should reduce performance bottlenecks and configuration problems, and simplify upgrades and peripheral additions to the point of true plug and play. Download the latest PC Design Checklist for Windows XP at to see all the requirements and recommendations and to follow revisions made to the draft document.

Real-Time Solutions
Given all we now know about current and future directions, what PC systems are available to us today, and how far ahead should we plan? In late May 2001, Gateway displayed an easy-to-read table comparing basic models and prices across the budget, mainstream, and performance spectrum at All systems could be customized to meet local task, price, and performance requirements. I describe three sample customized systems below. (Let me stress that this is not an endorsement of Gateway. The company merely provides a series of useful examples. Expect the URL noted above to change over time.)

A Gateway Professional v800c system can be customized to include an 800-MHz Celeron processor with 128 KB of cache and 128 MB RAM; 20-GB hard drive; CD-ROM drive; 17-inch monitor; and integrated audio, video, and network interfaces. Software includes Windows 98 SE and Microsoft Office XP Small Business Edition. There is a 3-year parts-and-labor limited warranty. This value system cost $989 at the end of May 2001.

A Gateway Professional m1000 system can be customized to include a 1-GHz Pentium III processor with 256 KB of cache and 128 MB of RAM, 40-GB 7,200-RPM hard drive, CD-ROM drive, 17-inch monitor, 32-MB INVIDIA graphics card, SoundBlaster Audio PCI 128D, and 3COM PCI Ethernet card.

The software includes Windows 98 SE and Microsoft Office XP Small Business Edition. It also has a 3-year parts-and-labor limited warranty. This mainstream system cost $1,378 in late May of 2001.

Looking further ahead to Microsoft's XP operating system and working with video, it is possible to customize a Gateway Professional s1700 system to include a 1.7-GHz Pentium 4 processor with 256 KB of cache and 256 MB RAM; 40-GB 7,200-RPM hard drive; combination DVD/RW/CD-ROM; 17-inch monitor; and high-performance video, sound, and networking package with 64-MB ATI graphics, SoundBlaster Live!, and 3COM PCI 10/100 Ethernet cards. Software includes Microsoft Windows 2000 and Microsoft Office XP Small Business Edition. Like the other Gateway systems, it also has a 3-year parts-and-labor limited warranty. This high-performance system cost $2,382 at the end of May 2001.

Either of the first two systems would be more than adequate for any Microsoft Office-based task, and the Pentium III system would even work pretty well with modest video creation and editing tasks when the right video capture card is added. The Pentium 4 system presents a decision-making problem, because it's nearly twice the price and doesn't provide any significant improvement in Microsoft Office performance. However, if you need the performance it provides for other tasks like working with multimedia files, or if you are planning for the future, it may be the one to buy. That said, it might be a good idea to wait until after Windows XP arrives and see how the hardware market looks before buying specifically for that operating system.

A couple of near-term marketplace predictions are not hard to make. First, processor speeds will increase to 2 GHz over the coming year, and second, complete $1,000 1-GHz desktop systems will become commonplace, further blurring the line between the value and mainstreammarkets. Moreover, Pentium 4 systems may cost as little as $1,000 by the end of the calendar year. Increasing competition at the high end between Intel and AMD plus sluggish demand due to saturated markets are the main reasons for these developments. Which components and peripherals would be included in such systems is the big unknown.

Predictive Space
According to Intel ("Intel Pentium 4 Processor Debuts" at "The role of the desktop PC in business is changing.Advanced data visualization and business intelligence applications place a direct burden on the processor. At the same time, growing use of network-based video and audio means that PCs must manage high-bandwidth data communications and media display side-by-side with traditional productivity software." The release of Microsoft Windows XP later this year should help with multimedia content creation, manipulation, and presentation at the desktop. Not long after, if everything goes well, the .NET strategy will have us relying on networked smart devices that do all sorts of interesting things silently in the background.

There's no way to predict if the Pentium 4, Windows XP, and .NET will work together successfully and open up new areas of desktop computing space, butalone or in combination they certainly will make many tasks we perform now faster and easier. For instance, some of us already create and distribute high-bandwidthstreaming video for orientation, training, or classroom purposes, and we would welcome anything that will speed up or ease the process. But our work with students shows that user satisfaction with streaming video, whether it's a live broadcast or playback of an archived file, is almost completely dependent on the bandwidth to the viewer's desktop. And that's something neither Intel nor Microsoft can do anything about.

As for the longer term, an extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography technology prototype for making computer CPUs wasunveiled at Sandia Labs in Livermore, California, on April 11, 2001. Intel, AMD, Motorola, Micron Technologies, Infineon,IBM, and the federal Sandia and LawrenceLivermore national laboratories are all part of the EUV consortium. PC processors made with this equipment, expected to hit the market in 2005, will eventually run at 10, 20, or 30 GHz and contain billions of transistors. You can read the full CNET story, "Coalition Shows Off Process for Faster Chips" by Michael Kanellos, and view the related streaming video files at

When these chips become widely available, real-time, high-definition video creation, manipulation, and presentation; natural speech recognition; and idiomatic language translation will be possible on the desktop. Later, combinations of these high-speed, multibillion transistor processors will be at the heart of artificial agents and machines that think. We have until 2005 to implement gigabit networking to support these applications. It's time to get to work.

Table 1:
PC 2001 System Design Guide Hardware Requirements
PC System Requirements Additions or Differences for:
Workstation Mobile
Processor complex 667 MHz

Advanced Programmable Interrupt Controller (APIC) enabled

700 MHz
Additional requirements for multiprocessor, if implemented

No additional requirements

400 MHz
Additional battery and docking requirements

Advanced Programmable Interrupt Controller (APIC) not required

Cache 128 KB 256 KB No additional requirements
Memory (RAM) 64 MB, 128 MB for systems designed for Windows 2000  128 MB RAM expandable to 2 GB No additional requirements
Power management
(see text following table)*
ACPI 1.0b No additional requirements Mobile PC supports Smart Battery or ACPI Control Method battery
Expansion bus USB required, PCI, SCSI optional, ISA prohibited Additional requirements for 64-bit PCI bus, bridges, and adapters, if implemented
PCI-X optional
No additional requirements
Ports 2 USB available to user No additional requirements 1 USB available to user
Graphics subsystem Video playback capability required.
DVI, analog video input, and capture requirements, if implemented
Larger screen size 

Follows AGP Pro Bus 1.1 specification, if implemented

 Mobile PC has an integrated display
Storage subsystem Hard disk and CD or DVD required Multiple hard disk requirements, if implemented Hard disk is primary boot device

* The system board must support Advanced Configuration and Power Interface Specification, Version 1.0b, for power management and plug and play. If software fan control is implemented, thermal design and fan control comply with ACPI 1.0b.


Eric Flower is the library director at the University of Hawaii­West Oahu. Send e-mail about this article to or to

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