The Cyrix M II-300: Pentium power for less
June 8, 1998
by Eric Knorr
(IDG) -- Everyone's time is valuable these days. But given the choice, would you be willing to sacrifice 5 seconds every now and then if you could save about $400? We would.
Consider the new CyberMax ValueMax B8 that just landed in the PC World Test Center. It's the first system we have seen that's built around Cyrix's new M II-300 chip. The B8 ran our PC WorldBench 98 suite of business applications as fast as the average Pentium II-300, yet it costs much less.
Packing 64MB of SDRAM, a 512KB secondary cache, a 17-inch monitor, an 8GB hard disk, a 56-kilobits-per-second modem, a 24X–32X CD-ROM drive, wavetable sound, an 8MB Symmetric GliderMax II graphics card, Altec Lansing speakers, and Microsoft Office 97, this maxed-out PC comes in at a mere $1569. That's $390 less than a similarly configured NexStar 208W PII-300 from NexTrend (a comparable second-tier company) and about $450 less than the Gateway GP6S-300 Pentium II-300 with much the same hardware. In fact, when we put these systems through their paces, Gateway's machine finished a lengthy series of operations in Microsoft Word in 178 seconds, a scant 5 seconds faster than the CyberMax. Overall, the CyberMax system posted a WorldBench 98 score of 161, versus 165 for both Gateway's and NexTrend's systems--a difference you'd never notice.
The Bottom Line
We also subjected the systems to a test that involved running five graphics and multimedia applications. In these, both of the the Intel-based machines we tested for this story performed significantly better than CyberMax's offering, although the NexTrend's great score on 3D games can largely be attributed to its Nvidia Riva 128 graphics chip. Bottom line: The CyberMax system is a good choice for bread-and-butter business applications, but if you're in the market for top-notch game and graphics performance, you'll need to look elsewhere.
More CPU options mean better deals. And Cyrix's introduction of the M II-300, which sells to PC makers at about half the price of a Pentium II-300 chip, seems certain to deflate prices right down to the rims. The M II-300 is a faster version of the 6x86MX chip, which Cyrix introduced a year ago. Cyrix will offer an M II-333 and an M II-350 by summer, the latter designed to work with a new 100-MHz motherboard. (The numeric suffixes are Cyrix's own ratings, which refer to equivalent Intel Pentium II performance rather than to clock speed; the M II-300 actually runs at 233 MHz.)
Whether a big-name PC company will ever market an M II–based system is another question. Apart from IBM (which manufactures Cyrix chips), Acer and Compaq are the only major vendors that have been willing to take a chance on Cyrix, and neither still offers a Cyrix-based desktop PC.
Cyrix officials say that their chip, which costs about the same as Intel's new Celeron chip, leaves the larger company's offering in the dust -- and when it comes to business apps, they're right. In our PC WorldBench 98 tests, the CyberMax M II-300 machine performed 25 percent faster than the fastest Celeron system we've tested (the Sony VAIO PCV-E203, which is built around Intel's brand-new 300-MHz Celeron). It's true that Sony's system had only 48MB of system memory compared to the CyberMax's 64MB, but other Celeron PCs we've tested did have 64MB and ran even slower. The CyberMax was less impressive with games and multimedia. In fact, Sony's Celeron system edged past the CyberMax in Redline Racer and Director.
Despite a solid track record of competitive performance at a good price, Cyrix-based systems haven't done well in the marketplace. Analyst Mike Feibus of Mercury Research likens Cyrix to generic pain remedies. "Go to the Safeway, and you see the generic ibuprofen right next to the Advil," he says. "Generics cost a lot less, but people still buy a lot of Advil." The analogy isn't perfect, since the M II and the Pentium are hardly identical. But smart buyers -- especially those who couldn't care less about twitch games and high-end graphics -- should definitely give the Brand X preparation a long, hard look.
Is there a $400 PC on the Horizon?
If a computer cost $400 and was small enough to plug into the dashboard of your car or to sit in a flat panel display in your kitchen, would you buy it? Brian Halla, CEO of National Semiconductor, hopes to confront you with that choice next year.
Halla, whose company bought Cyrix last year, says National is developing a microprocessor that will perform functions now requiring 12 additional chips. The "PC-on-a-chip," he says, means lower manufacturing costs, less power consumption, and flexibility to build computers in shapes you never thought you'd see. Whether the new chip appears in a PC or an "information appliance," it will be highly integrated, melding a Cyrix CPU with graphics, sound, and much of the support logic usually strewn across a motherboard, saving space, power, and manufacturing costs.
Cheapest PC Yet
National Semiconductor vice president Steve Tobak says mid-1999 you'll see the new chip in fully featured $499 multimedia PCs, sans monitor. Not much further off, he says, is a $399 PC.
Analysts greet those claims with skepticism. They figure that even if the chip works as advertised, the cost of other components will keep prices above the levels touted by Cyrix.
Moreover, combining so many functions on one chip has a disadvantage. Owners of more-modular PCs can upgrade subsystems, including graphics and sound, as technologies evolve. But stick everything on one chip, and you must live with the whole package. Nor could you replace the Cyrix chip with one made by Intel or Advanced Micro Devices.
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