Personal Computing

Compaq Redefines High End

By Peter H. Lewis
The New York Times

Houston -- November 6, 1989 -- The Compaq Computer Corporation today introduced two new products that redefine the high end of personal computer performance and are likely to change the landscape of office computing in the 1990's.

Compaq unveiled the Deskpro 486/25, a $14,000 to $20,000 desktop personal computer that operates standard software as much as three times faster than the quickest PC's in use today.

The 486/25 comes with a high-speed 120-megabyte disk drive and four megabytes of random access memory (RAM). The RAM is expandable to 100 megabytes for very specialized needs.

But the real star of the announcement was the Systempro, a floor-standing tower design that makes today's conventional minicomputers look like dinosaurs. Minicomputers are mid-range systems that are used to run small companies or large corporate departments. They typically cost $75,000 to $200,000 and use the Unix operating system.

The Systempro was much anticipated for its use of a new type of internal data communications structure called Extended Industry Standard Architecture. But the feature was overshadowed by other parts of the new machine.

The Systempro, at $16,000 to $25,000, costs significantly less than the minis while outperforming them by a wide margin. Analysts in the audience could be heard whispering ''awesome'' and ''poor I.B.M.''

The Systempro can use more than one microprocessor at once, a feat called multiprocessing. It can use two fast Intel 80386 chips, two fast Intel 486's, or a combination. In addition, it has a new system for data storage that previously has been found only on mainframes and supercomputers.

Rather than use one disk drive to store vast amounts of data, the Compaq uses multiple synchronized disks in an array, with up to 1.6 billion characters (1.6 gigabytes) stored internally. Information moves as much as four times faster through this system than through nonarrayed systems.

Also, the use of multiple disk drives allows some drives to be used to back up others, which leads to much greater data security.

Compaq officials said deliveries of both the new Deskpro 486 and the Systempro have been delayed until late December or January because of flaws in the Intel 486 chip.

This will not matter much to the average personal computer user. Both computers will be replacements not for the current generation of PC's, but for the current generation of minicomputers and workstations like the Digital Equipment Corporation's VAX systems, or the International Business Machines Corporation's AS/400 line. As a rule of thumb, people who have not already looked seriously into a VAX or an AS/400 system probably do not need the new Compaq computers.

Most computer users have not strained the capabilities of current generations of microprocessor, so rushing to buy one of the new machines that uses 486's does not make much sense unless one has already pushed the 386's to the limit.

The same is true for the Compaq's internal data pathway, called the data bus. I.B.M. built what is now known as the Industry Standard Architecture bus, used in the original I.B.M. PC-AT. In 1987, I.B.M. abandoned this ISA bus and introduced a new system called Micro Channel Architecture, saying the MCA was superior to the AT-style.

I.B.M. demanded a hefty tribute from other computer companies for the right to make MCA computers. The rival companies balked and instead banded together to invent the new EISA bus structure, which both of the new Compaq machines use and which appears to meet or exceed the capabilities of I.B.M.'s MCA.

The debate over buses is a popular pastime in the engineering shops of I.B.M. and its rivals, but we have yet to hear anyone say, in real life, ''Gee, that Micro Channel sure has made my life easier.'' We suspect that most users do not care whether the data bus is ISA, MCA, the new EISA, or COAT (Chipmunks on a Treadmill), as long as the job gets done.

The real effect of today's Compaq announcements will be felt in years to come, as desktop systems connected in networks replace the hulking minicomputers and mainframes that have been the backbone of office systems for 20 years.


Copyright 1989 The New York Times Company