Intel ships the Pentium 4

The long-awaited Pentium 4 claims huge clockspeed increases, but analysts say it's not necessarily so

Boasting impressive clock speeds and multimedia performance, Intel's Pentium 4 desktop PC chip hits stores Monday -- and at a bargain price.

Two new Pentium 4 chips at 1.4GHz and 1.5GHz will ship, costing $644 and $819, respectively. Its predecessor, Intel's 1GHz Pentium III, originally cost $990. The Pentium 4 also promises a significant clock-speed advantage over Advanced Micro Devices's current Athlon -- but that doesn't necessarily mean the Pentium 4 is faster.

Pentium 4's higher clock speeds stem from its new architecture, dubbed NetBurst. NetBurst utilises features designed to improve performance, including a longer pipeline, new methods of advanced data caching, and the ability of some parts of the chip to run at twice the clock rate. But some analysts say that while lengthening the pipeline -- which lines up instructions to be processed -- may help increase clock speed it can actually decrease overall performance.

Clock speeds and chip pricing aren't everything, however. Beyond performance, the new chip's effect on PC prices and its availability will be important factors for the high-end PC buyers most likely to pony up for the new chip.

Performance benchmarks put the Pentium 4 well ahead of Intel's 1GHz Pentium III in multimedia performance. Intel's own benchmarks show the 1.5GHz achieved 25 percent performance when encoding a .wav file to an MP3 file in eJay's MP3 Plus benchmark. The chip reached 44 percent on the Quake III Arena Gaming benchmark, and Intel claimed it was up to 47 percent faster when encoding views.

When it comes to everyday office-style applications, however, Pentium 4 is less than ten percent faster than the 1GHz Pentium III. This is sure to renew the debate about whether Pentium 4, despite its higher clock speed, performs as well as the Pentium III or AMD's Athlon.

"In the SPEC [integer performance] numbers, I think Pentium 4 beats Athlon, and it has a slight edge on the media [benchmarks]," said Kevin Krewell, senior analyst with Micro Design Resources. "In terms of general productivity applications, I think AMD is going to win."

Even Intel's 1.13GHz Pentium III, which ships next year, might beat the Pentium 4 on standard benchmarks, Krewell said.

Intel said it's happy with its results, since the current Pentium 4 provides a line of new chips based on a new architecture, said Jeff McCrea, director of Intel's Desktop Products Group.

"What you're going to see is here's your new baseline of performance," McCrea told reporters at a Comdex Fall 2000 Pentium 4 briefing.

Later, in a one-on-one with ZDNet News, he said benchmarks show Pentium 4 performing only four to eight-percent better than Pentium III on most ordinary desktop applications.

McCrea argued that the Pentium 4's clock speed will increase significantly over time, putting more distance between the new chip and Pentium III.

Intel has said it expects Pentium 4 to reach 2GHz in the third quarter of 2001. Or, as McCrea put it, the new chip is "still getting better".

Availability will be an issue for potential Intel customers, who would like to know whether Intel is launching Pentium 4 on paper or for real Monday. In sharp contrast to the launch of its 1GHz Pentium III, Intel officials said it would make significant volumes of Pentium 4s available at launch.

"We're in high-volume manufacturing today, with Pentium 4," McCrea said. The difference between the Pentium III 1GHz launch and the Pentium 4 launch is that we're "talking about a bin split versus a new product," he said.

In other words, Intel can produce sufficient volumes of Pentium 4 at the right clock speeds, which it could not when the 1GHz Pentium III was launched.

"Pentium 4 availability [right now] is based on how many wafers you start: that determines how many parts come out the other end," McCrea said.

The real test, however, may be the reseller channel, which only recently received supplies of 1GHz Pentium III chips. Intel said Pentium 4 kits -- including processors and RDRAM memory -- will be readily available from resellers as well as PC makers.

"All of our resellers worldwide will have the processor on day one," Paul Otellini, executive vice president and general manager of Intel's Architecture Group said at the Comdex briefing.

Initially, most PCs using Pentium 4 will be priced above $2,200. The highest-priced Pentium 4 PCs, which will sport the richest configurations -- including large hard drives, lots of Rambus direct RAM (RDRAM), and high-end graphics cards -- will cost significantly more.

Despite the higher cost of RDRAM memory technology, Otellini said, "We're very happy with where [prices] are starting, and they'll only come down."

Because Pentium 4 will be paired only with Intel's RDRAM-based 850 chip initially, Pentium 4 PCs are restricted to using the controversial memory. RDRAM costs about $100 more per 128MB module than SDRAM.

Nevertheless, Dell will be able to offer an aggressive price on its Dimension 8100 desktop, at $1,999, with a configuration that includes a 1.4GHz Pentium 4, 128MB of RDRAM, a 40GB hard drive, and a 19-inch monitor.

IBM's NetVista A60i PC will offer a 1.4GHz Pentium 4, starting at $2199, without a monitor.

Knowing that most consumers and corporations buy PCs that cost $1,500 or less, Intel wants to help drive down costs of Pentium 4 systems.

The chipmaker is working on a low cost chipset, codenamed Brookdale, which supports lower-cost 133MHz Synchronous Dynamic RAM (PC 133) -- however, Brookdale is not scheduled to ship until late in the third quarter or early in fourth quarter of 2001.

As a result, the chipmaker has opened discussions with third-party vendors, Otellini said. "It is my understanding that there are a lot of [third-party Pentium 4 chipsets] in development," he added.

PC makers could use third-party chipsets and SDRAM or Double Data Rate SDRAM to cut the costs of Pentium 4 quickly, which would help Intel sell more of Pentium 4 chips sooner, said Krewell of Micro Design Resources. With Intel's seal of approval, it is likely that some of the chip sets could ship as soon as the first quarter of 2001, Krewell said, adding that Acer Labs is one likely Pentium 4 chipset maker.

"Of course there's interest [in releasing a Pentium 4 chipset]," said Philip Leung, a strategic marketing manager for ALI USA. "However, I can't confirm anything."

See Chips Central for daily hardware news, including interactive roadmaps for AMD, Intel and Transmeta.

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