Intel's forthcoming Timna chip could revitalise the stalled market for sub-$600 (£390) PCs -- or prove to be another expensive stumble in attempts by chip makers to jam more features on a single chip. The issue: Are PC buyers willing to accept lower clock speed and overall expandability in exchange for a lower price tag?
Timna, it was revealed last week, will be introduced at a clock speed of at least 600MHz in the second half of the year. Designed for low-cost desktop PCs, the chip will integrate a processor core, graphics engine and memory controller with the aim of reducing cost.
The promise of the chip is that its lower cost, compared with Intel's Celeron siblings, will allow PC makers to offer lower-priced products.
The chip could reinvigorate the stalled market for sub-$600 personal computers, said Steve Baker, director of analysis at market researcher PC Data, in Reston, Virginia. Many PC makers were unable to maintain comfortable margins when memory prices increased, prompting their retreat to price points above $600, he said.
"No one's going to rush out and buy a PC because it has a Timna chip in it," Baker said. However, if Compaq Computer or Hewlett-Packard could offer Timna-based PCs at $499 or $549, "that will help expand the market," he said.
The success of Timna-based PCs will likely depend on how well Intel and its PC maker partners market the chip, Baker said. Consumers will have to understand they are getting essentially a chip designed to be low cost, he said.
The PC as consumer electronics device
Some analysts, Baker included, believe Timna could spark a new breed of rock-bottom-priced, closed-box PC. The trade-off for consumers would be that these machines would not be upgradable. Instead, a consumer would need to purchase a new model every few years if he or she wanted to keep up with the newest technology.
"There are a going to be a lot of people who don't care (about expandability). They'd rather save the $50," Baker said. "I think what (Timna) really shows is the disposability of the PC. This product has a usable life of X number of years. Most of your other plug-in consumer products don't have a way to add new technology. (To get new technology) instead you buy the newest model."
Timna is not the first attempt at an integrated PC processor -- a chip that saves costs by integrating a number of functions, including a graphics engine. Cyrix's Media GX was the first, but that chip's success was limited by poor clock-speed performance.
Despite the failures of the Media GX in PCs, analysts believe Timna has the potential to ride several market trends to success.
The first trend is PC makers reducing costs to maintain margins. The second, which hinges on the first, is a move toward the integration of PC components. Many PC makers have begun shipping PCs whose chip sets include integrated graphics processing engines instead of separate graphics boards. Many of these PC makers have, for example, adopted Intel's 810 chip set for their consumer-oriented value PCs.
Timna continues down that road, integrating the CPU, graphics engine and memory controller (or half of the 810 chip set).
"We are moving close to the single-chip PC for the low end of the mainstream (PC) market," said Michael Slater, founder of MicroDesign Resources and publisher of the Microprocessor Report, at last week's Microsoft Windows Hardware Engineering Conference.
However, Slater questioned how quickly Timna would be adopted.
"I think it is a little bit early to go with this level of integration," Slater said.
Intel officials, for their part, insist that Timna is hitting all of the right angles, including coming out at the right time and at the right price point. Intel also claims to have widespread support from its PC maker partners for the chip.
While Slater said Timna might not hit its stride right away, other analysts are more bullish.
"Not everybody should be buying the latest," Baker said. "If (Timna) is all I need, it's all I should buy. It appeals perfectly to the mass consumer audience."
More new details
Timna, which is sampling to PC makers now, will use a number of Intel technologies, including a Katmai core with 128KB of integrated Level 2 cache and the company's multimedia instructions known as Streaming SIMD Extensions. Timna will also borrow the memory interface and graphics engine from Intel's 810 chip set, although the graphics engine will be a "souped-up" version of what is found in the 810, sources said.
Timna will support synchronous dynamic RAM (SDRAM) at first. However, the chip has been built with a Rambus Direct memory interface, which will require a bridge for 100MHz SDRAM, Slater said.
The chip will be manufactured using the company's 0.18-micron process and will be paired with its Socket370.
Timna won't be alone in the market for long.
VIA Technologies is working on a similar processor, known by the code name Matthew. Little is known about the device, but Slater believes the chip, which is due next year, will integrate a graphics engine and a memory controller, among other things.
Timna will likely be branded as a Celeron chip, although Intel will continue to sell its current line of Celerons. In fact, the current Celerons will be running at 700MHz by the time Timna debuts at 600MHz in the second half of this year.
If AMD's new processor can outperform Intel's then a fuzzy name will be a nice bit of icing on the cake -- if they can't, I really doubt that warm and cuddly branding will make a bit of difference. Go with Guy Kewney to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.
Take me to the CPU roadmap: Intel and AMD's new chips