The official launch of Intel's Pentium II (Klamath) was overshadowed today by news of a design bug in the processor.
Intel said it would review the apparent fault, which occurs in the floating point unit. Although similar to the bug that hit the original Pentium in 1994 - in a public relations disaster for the chip giant - this one seems less serious, according to analysts, and should be fixed via a software patch rather than a chip recall.
The bug was discovered by users and publicised on an Intel newsgroup yesterday. It causes occasional delays when the chip does not notify the system of how it is handling certain types of data. Intel said it would not know until Friday at the earliest whether the bug really exists but will offer a solution as soon as possible after that.
More serious, said sources, is the delay in announcing various components that surround the new CPU, including the 440LX accelerated graphics chipset and the Auburn 3D chip, both delayed until late this year. Until the 440LX arrives, OEMs can use the existing 440FX, but this does not include Accelerated Graphics Port and so makes less effective use of memory. The danger for Intel, say analysts, is that third party graphics chipset makers will step into the breach.
There are also question marks over whether Intel will be able to deliver dual processor Pentium II systems to compete with Risc-based workstations, because of persistent power supply problems. Intel itself said multiprocessor PII configurations were unlikely to emerge until the end of the year and in the meantime admitted Pentium Pro is a better option.
However, despite these problems and the aggressive challenge from chip clonemakers AMD and Cyrix, Intel claimed at the launch that the Pentium II makes some significant improvements over the current Pentium Pro and Pentium MMX processors - whose features it effectively combines. For instance, it claims to handle 16-bit code up to 10 per cent better than the Pro, which was optimised for 32-bit, and has also addressed the delay - of over 50 clock cycles - that users of MMX systems experienced when switching between MMX and floating point modes.
Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Dataquest, believes speed is the main concern for Intel and it needs to demonstrate that the PII can achieve its full speed of 300MHz so that it can compete with the faster processors from AMD and Apple/Motorola. Currently, a 300MHz PII will cost almost $2,000 and so systems based on it will be mainly for business users, whie the 233MHz version will cost $600 and the 266MHz up to $800. These prices are unlikely to fall dramatically in the next six months as the processor is expensive to make, claimed analysts - although Intel has already been forced to reduce Pentium prices under competition from AMD.
Analysts believe Pentium II machines will only be essential for users of intensive corporate applications such as videoconferencing, until the expected price of $3,000 per box comes down significantly, and the surrounding features such as accelerated graphics are added. "Intel is aiming the early versions of this chip at businesses that need multimedia. The PII is how Intel plans to get business users to move to MMX," commented Dwight Silverman, an industry commentator with 'The Houston Chronicle'.
Silverman is nervous about clones however. The AMD K6 and the forthcoming Cyrix M2 offer MMX and better price/performance than PII, but "if there's even the slightest chance they won't work with some hardware or software, I'd stay away from them," he warned consumers.
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