Chip makers not stopping at 1GHz

The race to 1,000MHz is over. But consumers will continue to benefit as Intel and AMD slug it out to bring ever-faster chips to PCs
Written by John G.Spooner, Contributor on

The 1GHz race has been run: AMD and Intel each crossed the finish line this week with speedy processors for new PCs. But the race to put more speed in your PC is a marathon, not a sprint.

Don't count on the PC industry stopping at 1GHz. According to PC makers, the computing public's hunger for greater performance continues unabated -- and that means 1GHz, or 1,000MHz, processors will soon be surpassed by even more powerful chips.

Even the high-end PCs announced this week will soon be outclassed. Both AMD and Intel have much higher performing processors in the works.

"Everybody wants performance for a couple of reasons," said Peter Ashkin, chief technology officer at Gateway. One reason is "future-proofing," he said. "They want something faster to give them a little more headroom -- greater longevity than slower PCs."

High-end applications are another reason for the push beyond 1GHz, Ashkin said. Those programs, usually graphic-intensive applications such as games, call for as much processor performance as possible.

And users are willing to pay extra for it. Gateway begins shipping its 1GHz Athlon-based Select system, which starts at $2,999 (£1,859), on Monday.

"I don't see anyone saying enough is enough. I think the trend will continue. We'll have 1.1GHz and 1.2GHz, and we'll keep going that way," Ashkin said.

While it prepares its gigahertz-plus successor, codenamed Willamette, Intel may push the clock speed of the Pentium III chip past 1GHz. "If it is possible, we will do it," said Pat Gelsinger, vice president and general manager of Intel's Desktop Products Group. "It certainly is possible."

For right now, the 1GHz Pentium III will be limited to three PC makers -- Dell, IBM and Hewlett-Packard. The chip will ship in volume in the third quarter, Intel said. But Intel is now preparing to take the next big step in the performance race with AMD.

"The next big step is Willamette," Gelsinger said. "Willamette is a massive new architecture, which we think changes the rules of the game."

Willamette is officially due in the second half of the year, although sources expect it to be delivered toward the end of the third quarter. Willamette's claim to fame, Intel said, will be performance. The company recently demonstrated the chip running at 1.5GHz. The chip will also offer integrated cache, a 400MHz system bus and dual-Rambus direct RAM (RDRAM) channels, among other features. It will also include a new multimedia instruction set, similar to the Pentium III's Streaming SIMD Extensions. The instruction set is tuned to help speed video and speech recognition processing, among other things.

Intel has yet to disclose further details, such as cache sizes, packaging or power requirements for the chip.

Willamette and the company's forthcoming Timna chip will provide the bookends holding together a set of offerings that contains Intel's Pentium III and Celeron offerings. New 566MHz and 600MHz Celeron, and Pentium III chips at 850MHz and 866MHz, are also expected this month.

What a difference a year makes. With the computing world's lust for more megahertz and the competition between it and AMD, Intel faces a difficult road. The company not only faces pressure to bring its products to market quicker, as embodied by the gigahertz race. It will also have to pay closer attention to its chip pricing and may have to accept reduced profit margins in order to remain competitive with AMD, said Mario Morales, an analyst with IDC.

"If AMD can continue to execute and can position themselves strongly in the commercial space, I think it'll impact Intel on their margins because they're going to have to be competitive in price," Morales said.

Even as PCs based on its 1GHz Athlon chip began rolling down assembly lines at Gateway and Compaq late this week, AMD was hard at work on its next-generation Athlon offering. It is bringing up a new manufacturing facility -- Fab 30 in Dresden, Germany -- that will be the home base for its next-generation, gigahertz-plus Athlon chip.

That Athlon, based on AMD's Thunderbird processor core, will scale well past 1GHz. The core's most important characteristics, aside from clock speed, are performance enhancements in the form of integrated Level 2 cache and the ability to use copper metal interconnects. Integrated cache, which runs at the full processor clock rate, can provide performance increases upward of 10 percent. Copper interconnects, which connect transistors inside a processor, serve to help increase clock-speed performance over the aluminium interconnects used today by AMD and other chip makers.

Market analyst Peter Wolff, of ING Barings in New York, said that by touting the better benchmark performance of the 1GHz Pentium III -- due largely to the chip's on-die L2 cache -- Intel may spur AMD to move up the launch of Thunderbird. "I suspect, with Intel's announcements, it will spur AMD design and development efforts to release their new chip more quickly," Wolff said.

According to sources, it's expected that Athlons using the Thunderbird core will be available at clock speeds of 1GHz or higher. But Thunderbird-core Athlons will also offer a number of lower clock speed grades, similar to Monday's three-chip launch by AMD, sources say. It will begin shipping next quarter, according to AMD officials.

Aside from Thunderbird, AMD has two other processor cores in the works for the second half of 2000: Spitfire, which will result in low-cost chips for value PCs; and Mustang, from which AMD will derive future high-performance desktop chips and its first mobile Athlon. Mustang, among other things, will have larger levels of integrated cache in order to improve performance.

While clock frequencies and cache sizes are important, consumers will want to know what kind of real-world performance improvements they can expect from their gigahertz-plus PCs.

At gigahertz-plus levels, "applications are going to take on a new light," said Steve Lapinksi, director of marketing for AMD Computational Products Division. They will, in other words, run faster, but also gain new properties. As Athlon's process technology (the techniques used to manufacture the chip) is refined, AMD sees the potential for single-chip multiprocessing, where two Athlon processors are placed on the same chip. This creates a multiprocessing desktop PC, with the ability to run several applications simultaneously. Consumers could utilise it (and its Internet connection) for several functions at the same time. How about banking and gaming at the same time?

"While you're at home, you could be doing your banking in real time while listening to the radio (via the Web) or watching TV," Lapinski said. These multiprocessing capabilities are a possibility for a forthcoming 64-bit AMD chip, codenamed Sledgehammer.

Will the intense focus on clock speed and bringing the fastest chips to market first backfire on AMD and Intel? Some analysts believe it could, making it more difficult for the companies and PC makers to market their gigahertz-plus processors.

With AMD jumping from 850MHz to 1GHz, will the public accept a 1.05GHz chip or a 1.1GHz processor next? Or will a jump to a 1.5GHz chip be required to maintain interest, asked Mike Feibus, principal analyst at Mercury Research. Intel will make an even greater leap -- from 800MHz to 1GHz.

It wasn't long ago that 33MHz increments were the norm. Over the past four or five months, he said, buyers disregarded anything less than a 100MHz uptick. "We've put all of this weight on 1,000MHz. How do you turn around and sell 1,100MHz?" Feibus asked. "What is the least significant uptick that consumers will consider significant? Will it be 500MHz? I think the industry could be facing a problem if that's what consumers are expecting."

Additional reporting by Ken Popovich, PC Week Online

Now that the gigahertz barrier has been broken, what's next? Will anyone care when we pass 2GHz? Go with Michael Caton and read the news comment about The great microprocessor space race at AnchorDesk UK.

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