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Intel to release 800-MHz chip early for symbolic victory

The chipmaker is going to announce 750-MHz and 800-MHz versions of the "Coppermine" Pentium III processor next week, allowing the company to once again wrest the processor speed crown from AMD.

Intel will announce 750-MHz and 800-MHz versions of the "Coppermine" Pentium III processors next week, according to sources, allowing the company to once again wrest the processor speed crown from AMD.

Next week's announcement, however, will be symbolic to a certain extent and reflect the pressure Intel is experiencing in its core market. Few of the new chips, originally scheduled for the first quarter of 2000, have been shipped to PC makers, sources said, meaning consumers won't see many computers using them until next year.

The launch is a way to counter the success rival AMD has had with the Athlon, a Pentium III competitor that has received rave reviews. AMD released a 750-MHz version of the chip late last month. Although AMD had supply crunches of its own earlier this year, Athlon processors are becoming much easier to find, according to sources.

Historically, Intel waited until it was producing fairly substantial volumes of its new, faster chips before taking them public. The emphasis for both companies apparently has shifted to getting the faster chips out at a more rapid rate.

An Intel spokesman declined to comment on any upcoming products. Nonetheless, the spokesman said that 733-MHz versions of the chip are shipping in volume.

The emphasis on getting faster chips out more quickly will benefit performance fanatics, commented Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. If Intel accelerates the release of the 800-MHz chip, this will likely lead to quicker releases of faster Athlons and even 1-GHz processors earlier than expected.

"What we're likely to see is Intel taking the lead, and then AMD taking it back," he said. An accelerated schedule would also mean the company is having greater-than-expected success with the 0.18-micron manufacturing process, a more refined manufacturing process that allows Intel to use smaller wires and transistors.

Performance processors typically have come out in small volumes that grow over time--but that trend appears to be changing. Analysts and some computer makers continue to note that there are still limited supplies of the 733-MHz Coppermine Pentium IIIs, which were announced in October. Coppermine was the code name for the new generation of Pentium IIIs that came out that month. Coppermines differ from standard Pentium III because, among other reasons, they are made on the 0.18-micron process.

"Intel wants to go into the next millennium with the fastest PC processor," said Ashok Kumar, an analyst at US Bancorp Piper Jaffray. Regarding availability, he said, "1.5 million Coppermine processors will be shipped this quarter. Clearly there is a supply constraint."

There are also continuing supply problems with the components. One is motherboards, which are necessary to couple the latest Pentium III chips with Rambus memory, a vital ingredient for wringing out the full performance potential of the latest Pentium IIIs, sources said.

"The 700-MHz (Pentium IIIs) are getting easier and easier to get. The 733s are impossible to find," said one executive at a small computer maker, who added that Intel's Rambus-centric motherboards are extremely difficult to find. "Nothing has come out with Rambus on it."

An analyst note issued today by Richard Gardner of Salomon Smith Barney reiterated the point. PC manufacturers face a slight risk for lower-than-expected revenues this quarter "due to Intel microprocessor supply constraints," he wrote.

While a speedy release can give a company bragging rights, the associated low volumes can backfire on manufacturers as well, because customers get weary of not being able to get the glorious product they have read about, said Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst at MicroDesign Resources.

Apple in the past has run into this problem, he said. Historically, Intel has enjoyed a reputation for being able to produce steady volumes, he added.

How the product road map for Intel and AMD will change in the future is uncertain, but most likely the chips will come out faster than expected.

Officially, Intel has pegged the 800-MHz chip for release in the first half of 2000, while analysts have said until recently that it will occur in the first quarter. The company then is expected to follow with Pentium IIIs running at 866 MHz and then a 933-MHz version, said sources.

Willamette, the code name for the chip that will succeed the Pentium III, is due toward the end of 2000. Intel has said it will run at 1 GHz (1,000 MHz) and faster. An acceleration of the road map, however, may mean that Intel churns out a 1-GHz Pentium III in 2000 and releases Willamette at a faster speed, said Brookwood.

For its part, AMD is slated to come out with an 800-MHz Athlon in the first part of 2000 and hit 1 GHz by the second half. The company also will bifurcate the Athlon line so that it can fit into inexpensive PCs and notebooks.

Pure chip speed aside, the overall performance of both chips is affected by other factors. The Athlon, for example, comes with a 200-MHz system bus, which will get faster. The Pentium III currently uses a slower 133-MHz or 100-MHz system bus.

By contrast, the Pentium III can currently be paired with faster Rambus memory when available or 133-MHz computer memory, or SDRAM. Athlon right now is only used with slower 100-MHz SDRAM.