Intel won't release another version of the Pentium 4 until early 2002, sources say, in a move that will likely put the performance crown back on AMD's head -- at least for a short time.
"Northwood," a 2.2GHz Pentium 4 based on the 130-nanometer (0.13-micron) manufacturing process, will come out commercially in the first part of 2002, sources said Thursday. Earlier, sources speculated that the chip would debut in late 2001.
The 2002 commercial release of Intel's fastest chip isn't because of manufacturing problems, the sources said. Instead, Intel is trying to avoid potential glitches during the holiday-shopping season. A substantial segment of the consumer market gravitates toward computers with the speediest chips. If the volume of new PCs with the high-performance chips is small, consumers could postpone buying until next year.
Nonetheless, the timing will work to the advantage of Intel's chief rival. AMD plans to come out with a 1.6GHz Athlon XP 1900+ in the fourth quarter, sources said.
The upcoming Athlon will likely outperform Intel's current fastest chip, the 2GHz Pentium 4, according to analysts. Benchmark tests revealed this week that the 1.53GHz Athlon XP 1800+ beat the 2GHz Pentium 4 in many benchmark tests, though it loses in others.
The Athlon XP won benchmarks on general productivity applications and some games. The Pentium 4 won out on the "Quake 3" benchmark, some media compression tests, and on tests involving applications optimized for the processor. The overall results varied depending on the tests and the configurations of the computers used.
By speeding up the Athlon XP, though, the contest will more strongly tilt toward AMD's side.
"If they do a 1.6GHz chip, they could very well close the gap on everything else but 'Quake,'" said Dean McCarron, an analyst at Mercury Research.
The debate, however, will likely be rekindled when Northwood comes out. Besides running at 2.2GHz, the chip will contain a secondary cache with 512KB of memory, which also will boost performance. Secondary cache sits next to the processor and delivers oft-accessed data. Current Pentium 4 chips contain a 256KB cache.
A spokesman for Intel declined to comment specifically on Northwood's release date but said the company is producing the chips.
On recent financial conference calls, Intel executives had said that the company would enter into volume production of the new Pentium 4 during the fourth quarter but did not discuss commercial release dates. Often, volume production coincides with commercial release.
AMD also declined to discuss future chips. Company executives, however, have indicated that faster products are coming soon.
Current Pentium 4 processors are made on the 180-nanometer process. Chips made on the 130-nanometer process are smaller, use less energy and cost less to make. In addition, these chips contain wires made from copper rather than aluminum.
Intel came out this summer with its first copper processors, Pentium III-M chips for notebooks. A copper 1.2GHz Celeron, based on the Pentium III architecture, came out earlier this month.
Juggling release dates in light of the holiday season isn't new. In 1996, Intel decided to postpone the release of the first Pentium MMX chips from late that year to early 1997. However, press coverage of the MMX had been rather extensive. Executives and analysts later blamed the relatively slow holiday buying of 1996 to a desire on the part of consumers to wait until January to buy PCs with the new chips.
Since then, Intel has tackled the problem by shuttling major chip releases to September or the first week of January.
In 1999, for instance, the company released a slew of new Celeron processors in the first week of January. Later that year, the company was forced to postpone the release of the "Coppermine" Pentium III from September to October. That delay caused a shortage of chips during the crucial holiday buying period.
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