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Intel could hit 1 GHz with Merced

Intel is working on a chip that could debut at speeds as high as 600 MHz and soon after rev up to 1 GHz.

Intel (INTC) is hard at work on a chip that could debut at a speed as high as 600 MHz and soon after rev up to 1 GHz, making today's fastest Intel processors seem snail-like in comparison.

The chip, code-named Merced or the P7 processor, is Intel's first 64-bit design. The chip will be based on an entirely new architecture.

The newest Merced details are based on a report in the Microprocessor Report (MPR), a highly regarded newsletter for the semiconductor industry. MPR editor in chief and author of the article, Linely Gwennap, says that the article is "a forecast developed by MPR and is not from any sources at Intel and is certainly not approved information from Intel."

Within a year of the chip's release, its speed could skyrocket to 1 GHz, far outpacing today's fastest Intel chips that run at 200 MHz, the report says.

At 1 GHz, performance of Merced is expected to exceed a rating of 100, according to the widely used SPECfp95 standard, which rates the processor's performance in engineering and scientific applications, the report said. Currently, the Pentium Pro musters about a 6.70 rating.

Around the same time that the chip reaches speeds of 1 GHz, Intel will also "shrink" the size of the chip so that the manufacturing cost can fall below $100. That means the processor will be aimed at the mass market of PCs in businesses, not a specialty market for engineering or scientific applications.

In addition to a faster clock speed, the chip is expected to execute multiple instructions at one time. The more computer instructions a chip can process simultaneously, the better performance it offers--above and beyond the pure speed that measures how fast each instruction is processed.

"Our best guess is that [it] will be able to [process] eight instructions at once," said Gwennap. The Pentium Pro, now Intel's fastest offering, can only process about three instructions at once.

The chip is also expected to use a new approach to processing instructions called Very Long Instruction Word (VLIW), which packs many instructions together. The Microprocessor Report also published a time schedule for delivery of the chip.

"We believe the chip is currently scheduled to reach production in the first half of 1999," the report said. Since Intel's next-generation production process won't be ready until late 1999 or early 2000, Merced will initially be created using the same chip production technology as Intel's latest P6 processors, according to the report.

The chip is expected to be compatible with the current x86 architecture. Its author believes that Intel is developing a plan so that the new chip will be able to run existing applications.

"For Merced, we must consider the issue of x86 compatibility...the chip could include...x86 [circuits]," the report said.

The report also adds that "assuming the chip uses some sort of emulation for x86 applications, the question is the efficiency of the emulator." A relatively efficient emulator "would give Merced x86 performance similar to or better than that of a 400-MHz Willamette [processor], the fastest x86 chip expected in the Merced time frame."

Emulation is technology which is designed to allow a processor based on one architecture to run software compatible with another architecture.

The fastest chips in the industry currently come from Digital Equipment and run at about 500 MHz. Digital's processors could eventually reach performance levels equal to, or beyond, the Merced in the same time frame. Future PowerPC processors, which power Macintosh and Macintosh-compatible computers, could also reach performance levels which rival or out-perform the Merced.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.