Merced: Worth the wait? What of McKinley?

Merced is Intel's foray into IA-64 architecture and represents a pivotal stage in the chip behemoth's processor roadmap.

While its 32-bit chip family has dominated the desktop workstation and mobile market, Merced is expected to power Intel into the high-end workstation and server space. Silencing early critics of the chip, Intel has been careful to ensure full backwards compatibility with all IA-32 applications, although the jury is out on whether they will run faster or slower on the new design.

The rocky road to IA-64

The chip has had a rocky history. In 1994, Intel teamed up with Hewlett-Packard to design a 64-bit chip and the Merced relationship has been volatile to say the least. HP got tired of having so little control and later, in 1996 decided Merced's performance was not up to scratch. Hence, the next generation IA-64 was spawned, code-named McKinley .

Well publicised delays have thrown the Merced plans way off course. Production was due to start in 1999, but analysts, wary of being too optimistic, claim 2000 or even 2001is a more realistic time frame for volume production .

But by that time McKinley will be the hot chip and Intel could well be in for a lot of criticism if confusion follows McKinley's arrival. McKinley is the code-name for second generation IA-64 processors which, according to Intel, pack twice as much punch as Merced. McKinley is due late 2001, according to Intel. Word on the street suggests Merced is more likely to be a development platform with few commercial shipments -- most will wait for McKinley.

Going cheap? Not likely

And the cost? Expensive. Analysts expect prices (per workstation unit) in the region of $3,500 to $4000 (£2,134 - £2,440). While Intel won't comment on pricing, analysts say the new 0.18 micron technology which Merced is based on, will be expensive to start with, keeping initial costs high.

FAQs

Pentium II and III currently use a 0.25 micron process. What does Merced use?

0.18 microns - moving to 0.13 microns with McKinley. The 0.18 micron process starts mid-99 so it should be mainstream by the time Merced finally arrives.

What advantages will this give the chip?

More chips per silicon wafer compared to 0.18 microns and significantly, lower power consumption. Faster clock speeds and integrated level 2 cache.

Will Merced be found in laptops and desktops?

No. Merced is targeted (initially) at the high-end market, not office desktops and laptops. That's not to say that Intel's position won't change later.

Will I need to change Operating Systems to use Merced?

Merced is designed for people who need a 64-bit environment. There is little point using IA-64 if you are not prepared to move to a 64-bit OS.

The cost?

Pricey. Merced-blessed servers and workstations will be expensive initially.

When can I see Merced?

Intel says mid-2000 - samples expected late ‘99. Analysts say volume shipments in 2001 or even later.