The Joys of Spring

Spring has finally arrived, even to dismal Cambridge, and with it, so have two major PC products.

The Pentium microprocessor, representing Intel Corporation's determination to stay at the top of an increasingly competitive microprocessor market, was officially announced by the company late last month.

This re-christened 80586 chip contains more than three millions transistors (in comparison, the 486 has about 1.2 million) and can run five times faster than the 486, now the best-selling product from Intel. As Intel will not set the pricing for the Pentium until May, the first systems based on the new chip are not expected to arrive until sometime this summer.

Speaking of microprocessors, you probably have heard a lot of talk about the Alpha chip from the Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), the nation's second-largest computer maker. With an initial clocking speed of 150 MHz (150 million cycles per second) and plans to increase this figure to as much as 200 MHz, the processor is DEC's answer to power computing in the 90s.

Initial performance tests have indicated that the Alpha 21064 implementation is faster than the 66-MHz Pentium, partly due to a faster clock speed and also because the Alpha is a 64-bit processor as opposed to the Pentium's 32-bit data path. An analogy: just as a six-lane highway allows far more traffic than a two-lane street, the wider a computer's data path, the faster data can flow.

Yet another potentially powerful player in the PC processor market is the PowerPC, jointly developed by IBM, Apple and Motorola. Like the Alpha, the PowerPC belongs to the clan of CPUs that has as its motto "Simple Is Beautiful." Known as reduced instruction set computers (RISC), these systems attempt to execute simple-instructions as fast as possible.

The Pentium and other processors from Intel and Motorola, on the other hand, follow a design philosophy called complex instruction set computing (CISC), aimed at doing as many kinds of tasks on the chip as possible, thereby making the programmer's life easier but costing time with slower instruction execution.

The battle between the two strategies appears to be won by the RISC side, as evidenced by the proliferation of RISC systems and RISC features included in the Pentium and the Motorola 68050, a chip still in development. Despite all the heat in the microprocessor industry, most users need not be concerned since many of the new systems will be able to run software written for rival machines.

Another of this spring's new ventures is MS-DOS version 6.0, from Microsoft Corp.

When Microsoft released version 5.0 of its decade-old DOS operating system, it demonstrated what aggressive marketing could accomplish for a mediocre product struggling to catch-up to its competitors. Unfortunately, the new upgrade shows, once again, that the company made no serious attempts to make DOS user-friendly.

Instead of giving users such long-called-for features as files names longer than the notorious eight-dot-three format and decent multitasking capabilities, Microsoft, the world's largest PC software maker, added features that will give few users a reason to celebrate.

At top of the list of Microsoft's "Innovations" in the new release is a disk-compression program, which can give the user more hard disk space by compressing data before writing them to the disk so they take up less space. When read from the disk, the data are automatically decompressed back to their original form.

While such a utility may be useful for those alarmed by the rapid shrinkage of available space on their hard disks, most users will probably still find it easier to delete unwanted application files to free up space. The biggest problem with disk-compression is that you can't undo it if dissatisfied: the entire hard disk has to be reformatted to make it uncompressed again. There is also a speed penalty, when data go through the processes of compression and decompression.

Also packaged with MS-DOS 6.0 are an improved backup program, an anti-virus utility, and hard disk management commands taken from the popular Norton Utilities.

One thing DOS 6.0 probably does do better than its predecessors is its memory management. According to Microsoft, the user can now get system memory automatically optimized for efficiency. This should save the user from having so the cryptic CONFIG.SYS file when, say, more memory is added to the system.

So should you upgrade? The answer is a qualified yes if you are still using a DOS version lower than five on a 386-class systems DOS & Will likely make available to you more system resources and make your life with DOS just a little bit easier.

On the other hand, if you already have DOS 5, the new version is probably not worth the $50 price tag. Get a keg for this weekend instead, and celebrate the end of classes.

Haibin Jiu '94 former president of the Harvard Computer Society, is associate photography chair of The Crimson. His column appears on the Science of Health page on alternate Tuesdays.