Intel betting on Pentium 4

The chipmaker is counting on the Pentium 4 to pull it into the speed lead again. But, don't hold your breath

Expect Intel to pump out more megahertz as it attempts to get its processors back on track next year.

The chipmaker plans to launch the Pentium 4 next month, then push the chip's clock speed beyond 2GHz by the middle of 2001. No small task for a company that's seen its last year marred by such gaffes as manufacturing-related chip shortages, 820 chip set problems, and Pentium III 1.13GHz recall. Rival Advanced Micro Devices, meanwhile, has pulled squarely into the desktop chip speed lead.

According to sources, Intel is hoping to put those problems behind with the Pentium 4, now slated for a November 20 launch after 850 chipset problems caused a month-long delay.

Intel plans to introduce the Pentium 4 at 1.4GHz and 1.5GHz, before rapidly ramping clock speeds, sources said. By the first quarter of 2001, Intel intends to be shipping 1.7GHz or faster Pentium 4 chips, and, by the second quarter, Pentium 4s approaching 2GHz. If Intel stays on track with its current plans, Pentium 4 will exceed 2GHz by the second half of next year.

"Pentium 4 re-enables Intel to climb up the clock rate ladder. It's in Intel and AMD's interest to get ahead and stay there," said Mike Feibus, principal at chip analyst firm Mercury Research.

The Pentium 4 appears set to win Intel back its clock-speed crown, but what about performance and availability?

Pentium 4 is designed to be cranked up in terms of clock speed, which makes it difficult to compare directly to Pentium III or AMD's Athlon, Feibus warns. Benchmarks, which will shed more light on Pentium 4 performance, should be available at launch.

"We're not talking about performance, but clock rate. Clock rate is not a good measure of performance," he said.

The other considerations for the chip are its 850 chip set, which calls for more expensive Rambus Direct RAM memory and quantities. Pentium 4 will ship in fairly limited quantities at first; meaning direct PC vendors will offer it this quarter, likely taking orders immediately, but that the chip will probably not be available at retail straight away.

It will be some time, at least the third quarter of next year, before Pentium 4 reaches into what Intel calls the "mainstream" market for PCs that cost less than $2,000 (£1,383).

"The vast majority of computer buyers aren't going to be considering (Pentium 4) until ... mid year," Feibus predicted.

Mainstreaming the Pentium 4 Intel will continue to rely on the Pentium III to address the market for PCs priced between $1,000 and $2,000. It will start by re-introducing the 1.13GHz in the second quarter. The revised 1.13GHz Pentium III will be of a new stepping or revised design. Intel will deliver it on its current 0.18 micron manufacturing process and will utilise the FC-PGA "flip chip" package.

Mid-year, Intel will begin the transition to a new manufacturing process, based on 0.13 micron interconnects. It's likely the first Celeron 0.13 micron chips will be mobile because the new process will allow Intel to increase clock speed, while reducing power consumption and costs. Over time the company plans to transition all of its chips to the new process; with the priority transitions being the Pentium III and Pentium 4. The Celeron will be transitioned at a later date.

The new 0.13 micron process will give Pentium 4 the boost it needs to move up past 2GHz clock speeds in the second half of 2001 and will allow it to increase production and lower cost enough to begin driving it down toward less expensive PCs, priced at $1,500 or less.

However, taking Pentium 4 down market will take a new lower-cost chip set. Sources said the cheaper chip set, code-named Brookdale, is targeted for a third quarter release and will support synchronous dynamic RAM, which is less expensive than RDRAM.

The new manufacturing process will also yield several 0.13 micron Pentium III chips. These chips will be used to hold the line in the mainstream market. It will, reportedly, give rise to a chip code-named Coppermine-T. Coppermine is another name for the current-generation of Pentium III chips. Coppermine-T will represent a transition to the 0.13 process, where Coppermine-based Pentium III chips are manufactured on 0.13, before Intel switches to brand new Pentium III core designed specifically for the new process, sources said. That chip is code-named Tualatin.

Intel Tualatin, due in the third quarter, will begin life at 1.26GHz and will continue to use the 133MHz system bus. Besides the new manufacturing process, the most notable change looks to be a larger 512KB Level 2 cache, sources said.

Analysts believe the high price of the Pentium 4 and the lower clock speeds of the Pentium III create opportunity for Advanced Micro Devices. AMD, which recently announced a 1.2GHz Athlon chip, is expected to hit 1.5GHz by next January. Analysts believe it should be able to sell additional Athlon chips into PCs that fit in price bands between 1GHz-plus Pentium IIIs and Pentium 4s.

"AMD does have an advantage in consumer in the $1,750 to $2,000 (price band)," Feibus said. "But the majority of PC sales, about two thirds of the consumer market, come from PCs priced at $1,000 or less."

Everything else is "small potatoes," he said. "You can argue about whether AMD's small potatoes is bigger than Intel's, but they're all still small potatoes."

While fill focus on holding off AMD and pushing the clock speed envelope with Pentium 4, at the high-end of the market, it has a few minor upgrades in store for low-cost as well.

Intel will finish out the year with little change to the Celeron chips, aside from new clock speeds, 733MHz and 766MHz, expected to ship in mid-November, according to sources. However, the 766MHz will be the last to utilise a 66MHz bus.

Intel plans to increase Celeron's bus speed, at long last, in first quarter of next year. At that time it plans to ship an 800MHz Celeron chip, paired with a 100MHz system bus, sources said. An 850MHz Celeron is planned for the second quarter of next year.

Intel will also upgrade its 810E chip set for the first quarter of next year. The new 810E2 will integrate the ICH2 or version two of its input/output hub, which adds support for four universal serial bus ports, the ATA 100 disk drive interface, six channel audio and built in LAN.

Intel officials refused to comment for this story.

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