1GHz race heading for spring finish

The race to release the first 1GHz chip for desktops could be a photo finish, with both Intel and AMD planning to reach the milestone this spring

Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) are racing to be the first to break the gigahertz barrier sometime this spring.

It is still unclear which one will reach the 1GHz milestone first, but Intel upped the ante last week at its Intel Developer Forum, when it announced that it was sampling 1GHz Pentium III chips to PC makers, and revealing a new processor roadmap with accelerated launch dates for its Pentium III and Celeron processors.

Not to be outdone, AMD is preparing to begin shipping its 1GHz Athlon chips in the second quarter as well. The fastest desktop processor currently available is AMD's 850MHz Athlon, which was introduced on 11 February.

The 1GHz chips will primarily appeal to high-end gamers and some corporate users. For many, however, fast processor introductions mean little, aside from ensuring price cuts on older Pentium IIIs or Athlon chips.

Spokesman George Alfs said Intel will begin shipping limited quantities of its 1GHz Pentium III chips in the second quarter. Alfs would not comment on the exact timing of the shipments, but it is likely that the 1GHz Pentium III will appear later in the second quarter.

AMD, meanwhile, is privately telling PC makers to expect availability of 1GHz Athlon chips in 60 days. Spokesman Drew Prairie would not comment on launch dates, except to reiterate that AMD will have a 1GHz Athlon "by Q4 of this year".

"We don't plan on falling behind in the gigahertz race," said an AMD spokesperson. "We plan to offer competitive frequency at the same time as Intel."

Both Intel and AMD have plenty of work to do before they break the gigahertz mark, however. Before it ships its 1GHz Pentium III, Intel will crank out 850MHz and 866MHz Pentium IIIs, followed by a 933MHz Pentium III. The 850MHz and 866MHz Pentium IIIs will likely be released in the next few weeks. It's believed that the 850MHz chip will support only a 100MHz system bus -- the pipeline between the chip and chipset inside a PC. The 866MHz version will support only a 133MHz bus.

The 850MHz chip, with its 100MHz bus, will be paired mainly with Intel's 440BX chipset. The 866MHz processor, with its 133MHz bus, will likely be paired with Intel's 820 chipset and, later, the company's 815 chipset. The 815 chipset, due to be released in the second quarter, will support 133MHz synchronous dynamic RAM (SDRAM), which offers higher data bandwidth than the 100MHz SDRAM utilised now by the 440BX and 820. The 933MHz chip is expected before the end of the first half of the year. The 933MHz and 1GHz Pentium III chips will support only a 133MHz bus.

AMD, for its part, has been steadily pumping out Athlon chips at a rate of roughly one new speed grade per month ever since the 700MHz saw the light of day on 4 October 1999. Now at 850MHz, the Athlon will continue to march upwards in 50MHz increments.

Officially, AMD president Jerry Sanders has said the 900MHz will follow "shortly after the 850". Unofficially, the word is that the 900MHz Athlon will be introduced in March and support a 200MHz bus. The latest chipset for the Athlon -- VIA Technologies' VIA Apollo KX133 -- offers a 200MHz system bus with support for 133MHz SDRAM.

Intel's 1GHz Pentium III will be available in "limited quantities" at first. "We will target 1GHz in the first half to people that can really appreciate it, such as PC enthusiasts and high-end gamers," Alfs said. "It really will be limited volume in Q2."

This means PC makers that cater to those market segments will likely see the gigahertz chip first. While 1GHz Pentium IIIs will be available in systems, they may not be in other ways, such as in the reseller channel as boxed processors. Boxed versions of the 1GHz Pentium III may not be readily available until the third quarter of 2000.

If the situation is similar to that of the 800MHz Pentium III, Intel runs the risk of customers, and possibly PC makers, becoming frustrated.

Athlon availability is good, according to PC makers such as Gateway. When it comes to the company's 1GHz Athlon, "We plan on announcing something when it's available," said a source at AMD.

AMD and Intel are also both working on gigahertz-plus processors. AMD will continue to come out with faster chips under the Athlon brand. The company's next major transition is to a new processor core, codenamed Thunderbird, which promises greater performance and the ability to scale past 1GHz. Last week the company demonstrated a 1.1GHz version of the Athlon chip using the Thunderbird core.

Intel is also planning to introduce an all-new gigahertz-plus chip, codenamed Willamette. The company demonstrated an early version of the Willamette chip running at 1.5GHz last week at the Intel Developer Forum.

For full coverage, see 1GHz: The whole story.

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