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Computer Savvy: Memory Lights the Corners of Your PC

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With personal computers, taking a stroll down Memory Lane isn’t for the nostalgic. The world of random access memory, or RAM, is future-oriented, with significant changes in the works. Change brings both opportunity and threat, and court battles are blazing.

The outcome of these legal skirmishes may determine whether you’ve made a good
purchase decision with your next computer, or a bad one.

The Major Players

The
big fight here is between Rambus and DDR.
Now, pay close attention. Computer manufacturers spew out acronyms like paper
from a laser printer, and it’s easy to get lost.

Rambus memory,RDRAM (Rambus dynamic random access memory), is the
invention of a small Mountain View, California company named Rambus Inc.,
at http://www.rambus.com. It’s backed by computer mammoth Intel,
the world’s largest manufacturer of CPUs (the central processing units that
power PCs).

DDR
(double data rate) memory, sometimes called DDR SDRAM (double data rate synchronous
dynamic random access memory)
or similar names, is backed by Intel’s
archrival Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) (http://www.amd.com) and
other companies.

Rambus is a proprietary technology, and memory manufacturers must pay royalties to
Rambus Inc. for using it. Consequently it’s expensive. DDR is based on an open
standard that anybody can use and is thus more affordable.

The Conflict

One
way to look at this is Rambus as the Republican, and DDR as the Democrat.

Acting
like George W. Bush, Republican Rambus Inc. doesn’t want Democrat DDR to succeed
and has thus gone to court. Rambus Inc. contends that DDR infringes on its
patents. Not so fast, say DDR supporters. They, in turn, are suing Rambus back,
contesting its patents.

Billions of dollars are at stake.

Why You Should Care

Next-generation memory technology such as Rambus and DDR are needed to keep up with advances in
CPU development. With new ultrafast CPUs, current SDRAM (synchronous dynamic
random access memory)
creates bottlenecks, slowing down data and preventing
a PC from achieving peak performance.

The emphasis on performance, however, is controversial. Both Rambus and DDR claim
performance benefits that most people in the near future won’t even notice.
Rambus, being the first out of the gate and hyping louder, is more guilty of
this.

Testing by various computer magazines has shown the Rambus will benefit only those
doing high-end work such as creating streaming video for Web sites, doing
computer-aided design, or manipulating large images.

What’s more, testing has also shown that for business users running word-processing
and other office programs, the less expensive DDR currently is slightly faster
than the more expensive Rambus.

Yet
Rambus currently is more widely available, and because it’s ahead of DDR in
development, it may be less prone to bugs, says Richard Gordon. He is an
analyst who specializes in memory research for the Gartner Group, a technology
market research firm in Stamford, Connecticut.

Right
now, Rambus comes only with PCs using Intel’s new Pentium 4 CPU. DDR
comes only with PCs using AMD’s Athlon CPU.

If
Rambus Inc. is successful with its legal actions, DDR manufacturers may have to
pay Rambus Inc. royalties, increasing the cost of AMD’s high-end, but
value-priced PCs.

Meanwhile, though you can’t buy a Pentium 4 PC today without Rambus, Intel is hedging by
planning to provide Pentium 4 support for both Rambus and DDR in the future.

Tips for Computer Buyers

What
does all this mean if you or your company is planning a computer purchase?
Unless the legal situation changes dramatically, you shouldn’t go wrong with
these guidelines:

If you’re a corporate buyer outfitting high-end users, Pentium 4 and Rambus is the way to go. This is a good choice
too for publishing companiesoutfitting designers with high-end
desktop publishing, design, and Web publishing programs. If you’re outfitting
typical office users, Pentium III and SDRAM is more cost-effective.

If you’re a power user planning to spend $2,000 or more, go with an Intel Pentium 4 system and Rambus memory. This is
particularly true if you use high-end software such as Photoshop, AutoCAD, or
RealProducer.

If you’re a home user looking to optimize performance while minimizing costs, an AMD system with DDR memory makes sense.

If you want to spend as little as possible to do word-processing, Web surfing, and e-mail, go with an AMD system with
SDRAM.

Much
here also depends on your comfort level, your politics, and your prior buying
experiences. Business people, rightly or wrongly, often feel that you can’t go
wrong with Intel. Some individuals, however, are anti-Intel because of its
market dominance. If you want to buy a system from a particular vendor, all
this may be academic. It may not give you a choice between Intel/Rambus or
AMD/DDR.

Whatever
your situation, if you make the right PC-buying decision, you’ll say thanks for
the memory!

Reid
Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk
About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com
or http://members.home.net/reidgold.

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