Intel delays high-end PCs

In a stunning last-minute change of plans, Intel has postponed the launch of its highest-performance PCs, previously scheduled for today in the US.

Calling system vendors last Thursday, Intel acknowledged memory problems associated with the Rambus memory design in its 820 chipset. Intel reportedly found a "memory bit error" that curtails top memory capacity and speed.

The stumble will impact high-end computers designed to run the fastest Pentium III processors. In this niche, "everybody is going to be reeling: Compaq, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Dell and Gateway", says Kevin Knox, Gartner Group research director.

The Intel 820 system chipsets support a faster system bus (133MHz versus 100MHz) and 4X Accelerated Graphics Ports (AGP) as well as Rambus DRAM (RDRAM) and other memory architectures.

Rambus is the company that designed and licensed RDRAM technology to memory manufacturers. The 820 chipset is expected to boost memory speeds as high as 800MHz.

Compaq was contacted late Thursday by Intel and told that the 820 chipset was flawed. Compaq had planned to announce a line of DeskPros, scheduled to be available next month, but those plans have been postponed, said a Compaq spokesman, Jim Cortese.

"Intel contacted us and said it was experiencing technical problems with their 820 chipset," Cortese says. "That's all we were told."

Some observers have speculated that system vendors may need to rebuild large numbers of PCs or ship them with performance limitations. But Compaq doesn't face that problem because the final chipsets have not yet arrived, Cortese says.

IDC's Knox says Intel's misstep will rock already contentious relations between Intel and PC makers who have been bickering over the pricey 820 chipset. "We might see a lot of computer makers going with alternative chipset makers," Knox says.

While the 820 delay is major news for customers demanding absolutely peak performance, it is a non-event for most customers, says Knox. "Nobody was betting on the 820 being the leading chipset for another six months," he says, since conventional systems offer plenty of horsepower for most applications.

Vendors will go ahead with plans to announce this week, lower-cost systems based on Intel's 810e chipset, which targets budget Pentium III PCs. Like the existing 810 chipset for Celeron systems, it integrates adequate but not stellar AGP graphics to save cost. The 810e doesn't support RDRAM, and you can't upgrade graphics later. It supports a 133MHZ or older system bus, PC-100 memory, and UltraDMA/66 hard drives.

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Tom Spring

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