Intel's Coppermine Onslaught

Faster Pentium III clock speeds, bus speeds, and lower voltages, but no copper

October has already brought a hailstorm of new microprocessor products and announcements, and Intel added a whopping 15 new chips to the mix today. At an announcement today in San Jose, California, Intel executives Paul Otellini and Pat Gelsinger unveiled Pentium III processors based on the new, 0.18-micron process technology code-named Coppermine.

Of the 15 new chips, 9 are for desktops, 3 are for workstations and servers, and 3 are for mobile computing. In addition to stepping up the ante in Intel's recent race with companies such as AMD to advance clock speeds, the new Coppermine chips (they're not based on copper) feature lower voltages and several new technologies designed to move data to and from the central processor faster.

Smaller Die Size Intel's move down to 0.18-micron processor technology has been a long time coming. The new processors have voltages as low as 1.1 to 1.65 volts, which Intel hopes will usher in a new crop of miniature notebook designs offering high clock speeds operating at low voltages.

For example, Intel announced three mobile Pentium III 0.18-micron processors running at 500 MHz, 450 MHz, and 400 MHz. Of those, the 400-MHz Mobile Pentium III chip is designed to operate at 1.35 volts, whereas the other mobile chips will operate at slightly higher voltages. Each of the three new mobile chips features a 100-MHz system bus--a 50 percent increase in bus bandwidth over the current Intel Pentium II notebook chips.

Increases in bus bandwidth, improvements in caching technology, and new approaches to system buffering are all ways by which Intel is trying to beat the bottlenecks that surround simple processing speed. All 15 of the new Pentium III chips feature Intel's new Advanced Transfer Cache. The decrease in die size when moving from 0.25-micron technology to 0.18-micron technology allows the integration of 256K Level 2 cache in the new Pentium III chips.

Intel announced three new Xeon chips for workstations and servers: one each at 733 MHz, 667 MHz, and 600 MHz. Each of these three new chips has a 133-MHz bus speed, 256K Advanced Transfer Cache technology, and new system buffering technology. The Intel 840 chip set that the Xeon chips work with has 64-bit PCI support, and dual direct RDRAM memory channels with up to 2GB of memory support.

According to Intel vice president George Alfs: "The system buffering technology is designed to queue up information faster, and the new cache technology transfers the data to the processor faster. Working in tandem, these two technologies have brought a performance boost in our benchmarks of 25 percent when compared to earlier Pentium III processors running at the exact same clock speed."

Alfs stresses that these performance boosts will tend to be yielded on very processor-intensive benchmark tests. The benchmark test data Intel showed also implies that floating-point performance is much improved over previous-generation Intel chips. For example, Intel claims that the performance of a new 500-MHz Mobile Pentium III processor on a floating-point intensive 3D WinBench test is 131 percent faster than the performance of a 400-MHz Pentium II processor on the same test.

Most of the new Pentium III chips Intel announced are aimed at different desktop PC segments. Intel announced nine new desktop chips with a broader range of clock speeds and system bus specifications than is found in the new mobile and workstation chips. The new desktop chips range in clock speeds from 500 MHz to 733 MHz. At the top end of the clock speed range are desktop processors at 667 MHz, 700 MHz, and 733 MHz. Of the nine new desktop chips, four have 133-MHz bus speeds, while the remaining six have 100-MHz bus speeds. The four chips featuring the 133-MHz bus speeds are: Pentium III/533 EB, Pentium III/600 EB; Pentium III/667, and Pentium III/733.

The new desktop chips are compatible with several different chip sets, including the Intel 810E chip set, the 440X chip set, and the 440ZX chip set. Intel has suffered delays in delivering its advanced 820 chip set, but the company says the new desktop processors will be compatible with the 820 chip set and that the 820 will be shipped before the end of the year.

Intel's volume pricing on the new processors is aggressive. For example, AMD unveiled its new 700-MHz Athlon chip earlier this month at Microprocessor Forum and said it would be priced at £509 in volume. Since then, AMD has discussed dropping the price. The highest-end workstation chip Intel announced today was the 733-MHz Xeon with a 133-MHz bus speed, which will be priced at £495 in volume. Another new desktop 733-MHz Pentium III chip with a 133-MHz bus speed will be priced at £465 in volume. (The desktop version of the 733-MHz chip doesn't support Intel's advanced 840 chip set, while the Xeon version of the chip does.) Intel and AMD have been playing rapid-fire leapfrog in both clock speeds and pricing recently. The coming months should feature 733-MHz and 700-MHz desktop systems based on Intel and AMD chips with price tags around £1,200.

Several computer manufacturers have already committed to producing Coppermine systems, with most machines falling in the workstation and server spaces initially. Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM plan to sell Coppermine systems.