Tech Industry

Pentium III preview gets muted greeting

Gamers will like the new chip, but it is most notable for speed increases and a planned protest over security concerns.

SAN JOSE, California--Intel will take the wraps off the Pentium III today in a massive industry event featuring planned products from hardware and software makers, but interest in the chip is decidedly mixed--among both customers and protesters.

Intel CEO Craig Barrett is delivering a keynote address on the new processor this morning at the Convention Center here. Hardware and software companies will then provide sneak previews of PCs and applications to be released in conjunction with the debut of Pentium III machines in stores February 26.

The Pentium III is emerging as one of Intel's more controversial--and yet more technologically boring--products in recent years.

Privacy advocates are calling for a boycott of the processor and computers that incorporate it because of a controversial serial number feature imprinted on each chip. The number is part of a larger system to make electronic transactions more secure, according to Intel.

Privacy groups believe that the identification system will potentially allow companies and even law enforcement agencies to track where individuals go on the Internet. Intel has altered the way the serial number can be activated or read, but protests continue.

From a technological perspective, observers state that the Pentium III offers few benefits, at least initially, over the Pentium II except for faster clock speeds.

The first Pentium IIIs will run at 450 MHz and 500 MHz. Later versions released this year will reach up to 800 MHz and contain 256K of "integrated" cache, which is expected to improve performance substantially. (Current Pentium IIs contain more cache, but on a separate piece of silicon, which is less efficient.)

The Pentium III, in fact, is built around the same processor core. The major difference between the two chips is 70 additional instructions on the Pentium III, which will improve multimedia and video performance. But only a few applications will be ready to take advantage of the new instructions by next week.

More than 200 applications are being optimized for the new processor, according to Intel, most of them in the gaming realm. This is more support than the Pentium MMX provided upon its launch, many say, but perhaps less than the hype might suggest.

"For gamers, it's a big deal and seems like Intel has quite a lot of support behind [the new Katmai technology]. We should see a big jump in 3D performance this year," said Martin Reynolds, an analyst at Gartner Group/Dataquest. Katmai refers to the Pentium III's code name.

"For business users, not so much of a difference," Reynolds said.

Others expressed disappointment that the "generational" shift to the Pentium III really only involves the addition of the new instructions.

"You have to understand that the core of the PII...and the PIII is more or less the same core as the original Pentium Pro," according to ARS Technica, a Web site that is offering a detailed technical preview of the Pentium III, including a number of different benchmarks. "It's a good design, but Intel may be reaching a point of diminishing returns."

Perhaps the greatest immediate benefit for consumers will be price discounts planned for systems using the Pentium II. Pentium III chips in volume will sell for around $760 for the 500-MHz version.