As Intel kicked off its annual developer's forum in Palm Springs this week, attendees were treated to the first viewing of a silicon demonstration rather than a software simulation of the company's next generation of microprocessors, Merced.
While the much hyped 64bit chip is expected to ship in the middle of next year, industry watchers have cast doubt over whether the chip giant's newest semiconductor architecture will be greeted with open arms.
In addition, the rest of Intel's processor family has seen a number of new additions over the past few months, adding to the complexity of choice for many users who are left wondering whether they really need a processor running at 600MHz.
Chips with everything
For anyone left reeling by the bewildering array of semiconductors the company now offers, here's a quick rundown.
The range starts with the company's entry level processor, Celeron, which was launched last year in response to low cost processors offered by rivals AMD and Cyrix. Intel targets the desktop version of the processor at people who want the latest technology, but don't want to pay vast amounts of money for the benefits.
Company spokesman Graham Palmer said the chip has been particularly successful in the consumer market, and has also had a small degree of takeup in the business arena. "Its not just the processor that costs,” he said. "The PC manufacturers have designed low cost PCs that work well with the chip. It's a balance between performance and the price point and it’s married to other elements such as monitor and memory size."
Since its latest release at the end of July (see vnunet.com 19 July), Celeron currently runs at 500MHz and Palmer said it's next launch due in the first quarter of next year will "go way beyond this".
Two into three does go
Next in line is the Pentium II desktop processor, which, while still available, is being gradually faded out in favour of its successor, the Pentium III. (see vnunet.com 17 August)
The Pentium III, according to Intel, is the processor of choice for anything above a Celeron. In fact, this week, price cuts mean that a Pentium III 450MHZ is the same price as a Pentium II 450MHz, so there is little reason for PC manufacturers to buy the Pentium II any more.
The Pentium III is a mainstream processor aimed at both high-end consumer and business users, offering the highest performance and maximum flexibility to upgrade and support features such as graphics, video and audio playback, and Internet plug-ins.
The Pentium III chipset (the chipset controls the flow of bits that travel between the chip, the system memory and the motherboard bus) also provides a range of manageability functions which, from a business perspective, are very useful.
The magnificent seven
The Pentium III has recently hit 600MHz and later this year will move to a different manufacturing process which will result in speeds of 700MHz and beyond.
Currently, the Pentium III is manufactured using a 0.25micron system called Katmai, but is moving to a 0.18micron manufacturing process called Coppermine.
This means the manufacturing process used to produce these chips is moving to a smaller die size, which allows more transistors on the chip itself, resulting in much faster speeds. It also means it uses less power so is more environmentally friendly.
"It also allows us to integrate more into the chip," said Palmer. "For example, we are currently integrating Level 2 cache onto the processor which speeds things up too."
The process allows Intel to make more chips from the same amount of raw material, thereby increasing the company's manufacturing capacity.
Intel is planning to move four of its plants to the 0.18 manufacturing process by next year, and throughout 2000, most of the company's plants will transfer to the new process.
Full speed ahead
Beyond Pentium III is Williamette (see vnunet.com 26 March), which features a new internal design and should result in speeds of one gigahertz and upwards.
In the mobile arena, Intel has a mobile version of the entry level Celeron. Like its desktop counterpart, the mobile Celeron is aimed at giving optimum performance at a low price. Currently running at 400MHz, a 500MHz version is planned in the first half of next year.
Next in line is the mobile Pentium II chip, which is actually the first product shipping that has been manufactured using the new 0.18micron manufacturing technology. This chip is set to reach 500MHz in the second half of this year.
A real tasty Geyser
One of the latest Intel technologies, which, according to Palmer, is due to be included in 600MHz Pentium III mobile chips in the first quarter of next year, is Geyserville (see vnunet.com 1 September).
Palmer explained: "As you get into higher-speed laptops, they are reaching the same performance as desktops. However, today's laptops run at full speed while plugged into the mains, but on battery, the computer reduces power used by around 30 per cent to save the battery. It turns down the speed of the processor to save power."
He said that Geyserville technology, which will be built into the processor and the supporting platform, changes the operating voltage of the processor. "Today the operating voltage is the same for mains or battery. Geyseville reduces the voltage when the laptop is running on battery to give better performance."
Next up is Intel's Pentium III Xeon server chip. The company recently announced a 500MHz version with 1Mbyte and 2Mbyte caches - the larger cache version is designed for multiprocessor servers. At the same time, the company launched its Profusion symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) chipset. Palmer said this eight-way chipset allows Intel to get into the data centre area, which used to be the homeground of very large proprietary architectures (such as SPARC and RISC), resulting in much lower overall server prices. The company has support from many server vendors including IBM, Dell and Hewlett Packard. So far, 11 companies have announced systems and 15 more are on the way, according to Intel.
Palmer said the Pentium III Xeon will be ramped up to speeds of 700MHz during the course of next year.
Then finally, the latest addition, Merced, the first product from Intel's 64bit architecture track. It is built on 0.18micron processing technology and the first silicon is due around now.
Merced is very much a server/workstation chip and is expected to go into production in mid 2000.
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