Intel is gearing up to launch its second generation Pentium Pro - but users could have to wait up to three months before PCs equipped with the updated chip hit the market in volume.
The chip, officially called the Pentium II and previously known by its codename Klamath, is a Pentium Pro chip which is equipped with Intel's much-touted MMX multimedia extensions.
Last week Intel confirmed users can expect Pentium II by the end of June at the latest. Some observers believe the chip will be released on 2 May.
However, it is rumoured that Intel's core logic chip-set for Pentium II isn't expected to become available until the third quarter, delaying the delivery of machines.
Intel declined to comment and is remaining tight-lipped about specific details of the chip before the launch. The more than a dozen manufacturers which have committed to shipping Pentium II machines so far have also been sworn to secrecy.
At the CeBIT show in Hannover, Germany, earlier this month, 16 manufacturers demonstrated prototype systems based on the new design. They included Compaq, Digital, Fujitsu and IBM.
Speaking on MMX at a conference in Munich in January, Intel's CEO Andy Grove, commented: "MMX technology is the short term for the 57 additional instructions we have incorporated in our Pentium processors. These instructions were chosen to improve multimedia capability, the processing capability, sound and video and other types of visually appealing applications."
Pentium II has been developed using Intel's advanced 0.28 micro, four metal CMOS process and contains 7.5 million transistors - some two million more than the Pentium-class P55C (which includes MMX) the company released earlier this year.
The processor is also Intel's first to be built using SEC (single edge connector) technology. SEC is a cartridge that contains the chip and separate L2 cache. The SEC cartridge plugs into a slot, unlike other Intel processors which plug directly into a socket on the motherboard.
According to Intel, this design will let OEMs and users upgrade systems easily to faster processors and newer cache technology as and when it becomes available.
At the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco earlier this month, Intel executives gave a private demonstration of a prototype Pentium II system running at 400MHz. However, when Pentium II launches it is expected to have a much slower clock speed of around 233MHz, offering a 10% to15% performance gain over today's Pentium Pro.
Intel is positioning the chip at the high-end corporate desktop and workstation markets, in contrast to Pentium Pro which will remain targeted at the enterprise server sector. If Pentium II is adopted in servers, it will only be in low-end uniprocessor and dual processor configurations, according to Intel. Unlike the Pentium Pro (which is scalable to four processors), the initial Pentium II is expected to be scalable to just two. Its successor, codenamed Deschutes, will be scalable to four processors, but this is not expected to ship until the end of the year.
It is also understood that the initial Pentium II will not be suitable for notebook systems due to its power consumption. According to the Microprocessor Report, users looking for notebooks will have to wait for the arrival of Deschutes, which will have smaller transistors, probably in a low voltage version, and shorter metal traces.
The delay between the desktop and notebook versions of Pentium II could leave an opening for AMD's K6 or Cyrix's M2 Pentium class processors, both of which are due to ship about a month before Intel's.
Paul Stow, general manager for volume server business at Fujitsu, confirmed that Pentium II was not suitable for notebooks due to its power consumption and physical layout. He confirmed Fujitsu will be releasing a desktop system but declined to give further details.
"We ran a technology demo of Pentium II at CeBIT based on a modification of our G640i server," Stow said. "All I can say is that we will be offering an entry-level machine, based on a single processor and a midrange one based on a dual processor."
Stow believes the initial attraction of the Pentium II to corporate users will be its speed, rather than the MMX capabilities. "In business areas, MMX could be used for things such as data compression, but this will take some time," he added.
Martin Reynolds, senior analyst at Dataquest, agreed: "Pentium II will get a strong push from Intel in the second half of this year. Its real value is in the increased performance it brings, particularly for NT.
MMX is interesting for videoconferencing and the like, but we appear to be one or two years away from that taking off."
According to Fujitsu's Stow, the processor should be cheaper than Pentium Pro. "Architecturally the chip is cheaper to produce," he explained. "Also, Pentium II is expected to gain volume on the desktop, which Pentium Pro hasn't done."
Pentium II is expected to cost in the region of $750 (#469) per unit when sold in quantities of 1,000, compared to about $1,989 for a 200MHz version of the Pentium Pro including L2 cache.
Some analysts have suggested that the price/performance of Pentium II will force today's Pentium Pro into "wild card" status. They explain that while Pentium Pro has been successful as a server processor, it has never reached critical mass on the desktop and never will.
But hardware and software developers looking to adopt Pentium II may have a number of challenges ahead of them. According to industry experts, power supply component makers will have trouble providing the complex range of highly regulated voltages that must be delivered to Pentium II on the motherboard. Also, the new mounting technology, incorporating the cartridge design already mentioned, requires that the chips are placed at least six inches apart on a motherboard, taking up valuable space and potentially causing headaches for PC designers.
DIGITAL: LATEST CHIP 'DOUBLES PERFORMANCE'
Digital last week announced a chip which it claims can double the performance of today's PCs and which it hopes will give Intel a run for its money. The company has been working with Mitsubishi on the development of the new chip, the Alpha 21164PC. The chip will be aimed at corporate desktop PCs running Windows NT. Officials at Digital said the chips will be particularly useful for running graphics-intensive programs.
The companies are currently shipping samples of the new chip which will be available in volume quantities from July.
According to Digital, PCs running the new chip will hit the market at around $2,600 (#1,625) - a price very close to that of Pentium-based machines.
Two companies have agreed to use the 21164PC in future products; Vobis Microcomputer and Enorex Microsystems. Neither are tier-one players, although Digital says it is also talking to other manufacturers about adopting the chip. Industry analysts were sceptical as to whether Digital could steal a significant amount of market share from Intel, saying manufacturers would be extremely wary of switching their main chip supplier.
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