RealTime IT News

Intel Advances Pentium Line to 'Prescott'

Looking to reinforce its domination on the desktop, Intel will release six new Pentium 4 processors Monday with the fastest ones coming later this year.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip making giant is debuting four new P4 chips made using the increasingly popular 90-nanometer (nm) process technology (a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter), and two in the standard 130-nm, including one of Intel's new "Extreme Edition" processors. While the 90nm chips were actually expected to debut late last year, the No. 1 chipmaker is hoping the smaller die size will help it keep an edge over competitors like AMD and IBM .

The new Prescott chips are hardly a secret. As previously reported, parts for the new chips have already been shipped to vendors and Intel said that all but the 90nm 3.40GHz model are ready for purchase. That one is expected to come out in the next two months. All six support its Hyper-Threading Technology, enhanced NetBurst microarchitecture, and contain 13 new sets of instructions, such as streaming Single Instruction Multiple Data (SIMD) -- designed to improve 3D and multimedia capabilities.

Except for the Extreme Edition, the new chips are compatible with Intel-based 865 and 875 chipset boards and all six include an 800 MHz front side bus.

The line up includes 90nm Pentiums running 3.40GHz, 3.20 GHz, 3.0 GHz and 2.80 GHz with 1MB on-die L2 cache; a 3.40 GHz with 512KB on-die cache based on its Northwood core; and a 3.40 GHz Extreme Edition P4 with an additional 2MB on-die L3 cache being targeted for high-end gamers and computing power users. The company said it is already working on a 4GHz Pentium 4 and expects to release it by the end of 2004.

If the speeds look a little familiar, it's because Intel already has a few Pentiums that perform about as fast but on the larger Northwood cores. Intel has said that future Prescott-style Pentiums would shift to its Grantsdale chipset architecture.

Independent evaluators have benchmark Prescott within the existing P4 line's established ratings but Rick Whittington, an analyst with American Technology Research said investors should look forward to the margin benefits it promises even if the long-awaited "AMD crushing" is postponed.

"Intel has struggled to get its 90nm Prescott family launched but now that it has, even if with discernibly lower clock rates and functional performance than once promised, investors can look forward to sharp cost reductions in mainstream 32bit x86 processors in the several years ahead," Whittington said in an e-mail to subscribers. "With a 3.2Ghz-labeled part, at 103 watts, the first available part, Prescott will brute force ahead on the 300mm wafer train Intel has set in store for 2004-2005."

Bill Siu, vice president and general manager for Intel's Desktop Platforms Group said the company's usual protocol is to debut a new line with similar qualities to its existing chips but said he expects the new Prescott lineup to represent more than 50 percent of the company's performance desktop units in the second quarter of 2004.

"This is a new area for the PC platform," Siu told reporters during a briefing. "These new chips take advantage of new technologies like PCI Express, new media capabilities and consumer electronic quality audio."

In addition to desktops, Intel said the chips could also find themselves in home entertainment centers (so called digital hubs), which are designed for connecting the Internet and various other home appliances. Already pledging their support for the new chips are vendors such as IBM, Dell , Hewlett-Packard , Gateway , and Sony as well as a flock of other PC manufacturers. A majority of the vendors is expected to announce support for the new chip this week.

Currently, the chips are being produced at Intel's fabrication plants in Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Siu said the company could easily begin to produce the new chips at its plants in Ireland and Israel if demand became an issue.

New chips based on 90nm represent a milestone for Intel. The company has been shifting its wafer manufacturing to 300mm and has engineered a way to combine things like low-power transistors, strained silicon, high-speed copper interconnects and a new low-k dielectric material all in one processor.

The company said its 90 nm process lets it more than double the transistor count while reducing the die size by over 15 percent. Prescott's die size is 112 mm with a transistor count of roughly 125 million. Likewise, Intel said its 130nm Northwood has a die size of 132 mm and a transistor count of 55 million.

"One of the things that Intel has been able to do is advance one generation to another," Siu said. "We continue to make the die smaller and by doing that, we substantially improve the cost and availability of the product."

Two things noticeably absent from the new chips are a hardware or software solution to address a growing need for 64-bit computing; and new security features. Siu said none of the new chips include any next generation security features that the company is not already using.

Currently, Intel maintains a healthy 32-bit processor lineup with its Pentium desktop processors and its workhorse Xeon server chips. So the need for Intel to evolve Pentium or Xeon to 64-bit status seems to be a quagmire for Intel. During the company's last bi-annual Developer's Forum, company CTO Pat Gelsinger suggested that the need to move to 64-bit was not even necessary until at least until 2006 or 2007. Any move prior to that might be considered premature at best, Gelsinger said at the time considering 32-bit addressing limit of 4GB seems to be doing just fine in the marketplace.

And while the shift to 64-bit processors is not impossible for Intel, there is the question of whether or not the company would extend the technology and put it in direct competition with Itanium. Intel has repeatedly said it will wait to see how the 64-bit x86 market shakes out before staking its claim with either compatible Pentium or Xeon chips.