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Intel’s Pentium launched 20 years ago today

22 Mar 2013
Intel Pentium processor

Intel's Pentium processor was launched 20 years ago today, marking a key shift in the firm's marketing strategy with an effort to push the Intel brand itself, leading to the chipmaker becoming the dominant supplier of computer chips across the globe.

The Pentium was the successor to Intel's 486 processor chips, and as the fifth generation of its x86 processor technology, was expected to have been named the 586.

However, stung by rivals such as AMD who were marketing similar named alternatives to the 486, Intel decided to change strategy and come up with a name it could protect under a trademark, which the US government did not allow for just a series of numbers.

Intel Inside logoThe move came at about the same time as Intel started to ramp up its "Intel Inside" campaign, begun a year or two earlier, which sought to establish Intel as a household name rather than just a supplier of electronic components known only to computer industry watchers.

Intel's strategy paid off, with many consumers opting to purchase a computer with an "Intel Inside" sticker instead of lower cost alternatives, swayed by the marketing insistence that an Intel chip meant higher performance and a better experience.

"In 1993, the Pentium brand was a game changer for Intel and the industry. Not only was it five times faster in performance than its predecessor the 486, it became the most famous microprocessor brand name in the world," said Dan Bingham, marketing manager for Intel's PC Client Group.

Produced using a 0.8 micron (800nm) production process, the first Pentium chips were built from 3.1 million transistors, compared to today's Core i7 chips, which have 1.4 billion transistors and are fabricated using a 22nm process.

The Pentium itself was the first superscalar x86 processor, with its P5 microarchitecture introducing dual integer arithmetic and logic (ALU) pipelines that allowed it to execute two instructions per clock cycle in many instances.

It also featured a much faster floating point unit (FPU) than the 486, and although a 32bit processor, Intel introduced a 64bit system bus that allowed the Pentium to feed data faster into its on-chip data and instruction caches.

The first Pentium chips were also introduced in 60MHz and 66MHz versions, which sound laughable now, but these clock speeds were matched only by the fastest 486 chips then on sale.

Taken together, these changes meant that the Pentium showed an immediate performance boost over the 486, achieving benchmark scores almost twice as high as a 486 at the same clock speed.

This was demonstrated by V3's former sister title Personal Computer World, which at the time published iComp benchmark scores rating the 66MHz Pentium at 565, compared with 297 for the 66MHz 486DX2, which was the fastest chip available prior to the Pentium launch.

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Daniel Robinson

Daniel Robinson is technology editor at V3, and has been working as a technology journalist for over two decades. Dan has served on a number of publications including PC Direct and enterprise news publication IT Week. Areas of coverage include desktops, laptops, smartphones, enterprise mobility, storage, networks, servers, microprocessors, virtualisation and cloud computing.

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