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Games Without Frontiers

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Having just spent a couple of days in France listening to AMD evangelise about the Athlon 64 I started to wonder about the state of the PC market in general.

For years now PC and most importantly CPU manufacturers have been telling us that speed is essential in a desktop computer. Those extra numbers before the MHz acronym weren’t just going to mean a faster system speed, but were actually going to change our lives in more ways than we could imagine.

The MHz race eventually evolved into a GHz one and along the way AMD even adopted the old “Speed Equivalent” rating sported so successfully by Cyrix back in the mid nineties. Instead of trying to compete with Intel on an actual speed basis, AMD started to rate its chips equivalently, meaning that although they physically ran slower than a competing Intel chip, the actual real world performance was almost identical.

Throughout this never ending race to produce the faster processor or PC many people, myself included started to wonder what the point was. Even though we were being told that a faster processor meant a better Internet experience, or faster office applications, anyone with the slightest amount of IT knowledge knew that this wasn’t the case. In fact, I’m writing this column on an 866MHz Pentium III based PC, and I really can’t tell any difference in performance between this and the 2.6GHz machine I was using in the office yesterday.

You see we’re in an enviable position at the moment, and one which almost every PC user longed for during the mid nineties. Right now, hardware is well ahead of the software, and the chances are that even a three year old system will be able to run almost anything you throw at it without too much trouble. Of course, you might be able to open Word slightly faster with a newer hard disk, or even burn CD-Rs quicker with the latest CD-RW drive, but in the most part, general applications are going to run just fine on a system that’s a little out of date.

However, when it comes to games even a six month old machine may start to struggle. Without the latest graphics card and an equally fast CPU to back it up you could find yourself languishing in the murky depths of either low resolution, or a complete lack of image enhancing features.

Of course this isn’t a revelation in any way. For years PC professionals and enthusiasts have said that the only reason you need to upgrade your PC is to play games. But what is a revelation is that the major CPU manufacturers are finally admitting it.

AMD is making no pretence about the target audience for the new Athlon 64 FX-51 chip. It is, as AMD made very clear, aimed purely at the hardcore gamer that wants the best possible performance from today’s most complex games.

And as if that wasn’t enough, as soon as the FX-51 reared its head Intel announced the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, with a hefty chunk of Level 3 cache thrown on the die. And where has Intel aimed this new chip? You guessed it, the hardcore gamer.

It wasn’t too long ago that companies like Intel and AMD would never admit that they were aiming a product at gamers since it didn’t fit in with the corporate identity. Now however, it seems that both the chip giants have realised that it’s the gamers and power enthusiasts that are putting their hand in their pocket for the latest kit, while corporate and consumer users are happily chugging along with the same PC for years.

Ultimately it’s refreshing to see such a change of tack from Intel and AMD. In the case of AMD in particular, its loyal following of enthusiasts and gamers will be happy of the recognition. But how many of these new chips will actually sell remains to be seen.

One aspect of the enthusiast market that both companies seem to have ignored is the overclocking culture. Most enthusiasts aren’t going to cough up the cash for a top of the range CPU and instead will look for one a couple of steps down and try to overclock it. So, how many people are going to fork out the big bucks for an FX-51 is debatable.

Whatever the ultimate sales figures are for these mega-chips, the fact remains that the PC industry is finally waking up to the importance of enthusiasts and gamers. And with this in mind the future of PC based entertainment is looking better than ever.

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