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It's all about the Pentiums, baby!

Processors were all the rage at last week's Intel Developer Forum. The only thing missing? 'Weird Al' Yankovic belting out a melodic Pentium parody

It was all about the Pentiums. Or at least it was last week at the week's Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in Palm Springs, California. I was disappointed that Intel didn't have Weird Al on hand to belt out his Intel-based song parody to developers. Microsoft, after all, had Carlos Santana at its Windows 2000 launch. How come Intel couldn't come up with a little "Weird Al Inside"? Not that I'm a big Weird Al fan or anything -- for that matter, who is? However, this would have livened up the IDF. Lively this chipfest wasn't, but as long as you weren't on the MD-80 that skidded off the runway at Palm Springs International Airport on Wednesday, which I wasn't, it was worth making the trip.

Reporters yawned their way through Andy Grove's e-business talk early on Tuesday morning. The scribbling began only when Intel's Albert Yu and Pat Gelsinger took the stage. That's because, for the first time publicly, Yu and Gelsinger showed off their new chip. Codenamed Willamette -- also the name of a river in Oregon, where the chip is being designed -- it has been chosen as the GHz-plus successor to Intel's Pentium III chip. Intel spent hours going over the chip's architecture, its instruction set and other new features with developers at the forum. No-one at Intel will say what the chip will be called officially, but I assure you the company has spent too much money to call it anything other than a Pentium-something. (Remember, it's all about the Pentiums.)

Intel demoed the chip running at 1.4GHz, and later pressed a "gas pedal" to up it to 1.5GHz. Gelsinger said later that Tuesday's entire keynote speech was running on Willamette. The chip must be fast, because the presentation kept jumping ahead a slide or two before Yu finished with each. Intel isn't saying when the chip will be released or how fast it will be initially, but I would guess that we'll see it in the third quarter of this year at about 1.4GHz. The new Pentium III will run at 1GHz and be available in volume also at that time, the company said. That was the other big news at the show.

Anyone who follows the news knows that Intel has been adjusting the launch dates of its processors. The company did it last December when it announced the 800MHz Pentium III. It did it again last week when it announced that the 1GHz Pentium III is sampling now. To prove it, Intel showed off systems from Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard and IBM. You'll be able to order a 1GHz Pentium III-based system next quarter. However, when you'll actually receive that PC is up in the air -- giving Gelsinger his credit, he did state that the 1GHz chip will be available in only "limited" quantities at first. This means if you don't want to wait, then order a 933MHz -- it won't be that much slower, anyway.

Of course, Intel won't be the only company shipping 1GHz desktop PC chips in the third quarter. AMD has said that it won't ship 1GHz Athlons until the fourth quarter. I doubt, however, that AMD will stick to that plan now. Instead, it will revise that plan quickly, and you'll see 1GHz Athlons before or close to the same time the first 1GHz Pentium III PC rolls out.

Also last week, when a burning smell (from the kitchen -- not a demo!) wafted through the press room, one Intel PR guy joked that it was the second half of AMD's plan to sabotage the conference. The first part must have been that AMD had set up camp just down the street at the Palm Springs Hilton, offering the media, analysts and I suppose Intel developers an update on the status of Athlon. AMD, in true IDF-crashing style, made its own GHz-plus demo, showing off a 1.1GHz (1,116MHz to be exact) Athlon chip based on its forthcoming Thunderbird processor core. I visited the AMD suite for the update and a look at the 1.1GHz demo

Intel's Timna chip, however, was more interesting than Willamette. Historically, integrated chips haven't been hot sellers. But if Timna works the way Intel says it will, it could lower the entry-level cost of PCs. Right now, aside from e-machines, there isn't much available below $599 (£370). More low-cost offerings, assuming they're well-designed and stable, would only benefit the consumer. Granted, not everyone needs an integrated Timna chip. But then again, not everyone needs a 1GHz Pentium III or 1.5GHz Willamette chip, either. A rock-bottom-priced, Timna-based PC with 64MB of memory soldered to its motherboard could potentially cost $300 (£185). At that price, you could buy it outright, keep it for a year and throw it away, although you'd be more likely keep it for a few years before upgrading to another model (like with a VCR). Timna certainly blurs the line between a PC and an appliance.

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