Intel announced this week that it would introduce a Pentium 4 motherboard chipset that allows the high-end processor to work with lower-end memory, a move that could make the Pentium 4 more economical for casual users. Originally, Intel said that the Pentium 4 would only work with expensive "Rambus" (RDRAM) memory chips, which run on a 400 MHz system bus. But the company now plans to issue a Pentium 4 chipset that will work with the more common 133 MHz SDRAM, opening up new markets for P4 systems and casting doubts on the viability of RDRAM. And a mid-level DDR SDRAM solution, which will run at 266 MHz, is also in the works. Both of the non-RDRAM designs, however, won't see the light of day until late next year. So when the Pentium 4 does ship this fall, it will be expensive and geared toward servers and high-end power users as previously planned.

RDRAM has been at the center of controversy for some time. Despite its high price and specifications, tests show that slower SDRAM outpaces RDRAM on high-end Pentium III systems. And analysts say that Intel's decision to back SDRAM might be the final blow to RDRAM: With better performance at one-third the price, Intel had little choice but to change its Pentium 4 roadmap dramatically. But we won't be able to judge the performance of these chips until systems are available. Rambus, the company that owns RDRAM, says that the Pentium 4 can process data at 3.2 Gb per second, which is the same speed as RDRAM. So lower-end memory chips will cause a performance hit on P4 systems.

"Intel has always maintained that they will examine other memory solutions," a Rambus spokesperson said this week. "\[RDRAM\] will be unmatched in performance \[on Pentium 4 systems\].