Intel's soon-to-be released Pentium III processor is mistaken for a Pentium II processor by Windows 95 and 98 PCs, according to Microsoft. Pentium III PCs will actually be identified as Pentium II systems in Windows system folders, according to a warning about the problem posted to its technical support Web site.
Windows 98 does take advantage of the new instructions in the Pentium III chip that are designed to speed up multimedia and communications functions. Thus, for Windows 98 users, the issue will cause more confusion than real performance problems.
"The bottom line is that Windows 98 fully supports the Pentium III processor," said Rob Bennett, Windows group product manager, but "the presentation [of the processor identification] to the user is different than how Windows identifies it in its operating interactions."
Windows 98, which launched last June, does not yet recognize the CPU identification code associated with the Pentium III, although the platform's DirectX 6.1 multimedia technology is optimized to exploit the new "Katmai" instructions in the Pentium III, Bennett said. Additionally, third-party applications are not affected by the identification error, he said.
"When Windows 98 ships on February 26 with a Pentium III-based machine, it will take advantage of all the capabilities of the Pentium III," said Howard High, a spokesman for Intel, explaining that even when companies are as closely associated as the so-called Wintel alliance, "there is a natural lag time before the product actually comes out in the marketplace."
Glitch shows communications breakdown
Intel decided on the Pentium III branding in the midst of Microsoft's refresh cycle, High explained, which prevented the software company from updating its software in time for the upcoming Pentium III launch.
Microsoft's Bennett says his company did not find out about the new name until it was announced on January 11. "We need to know what the chip is called in order to present it to users. Without that, it's difficult to present the information," Bennett said.
Although the companies obviously must work closely together for testing before Intel can launch a new chip, the glitch indicates that there are clearly some lags in communication.
"Microsoft and Intel work very hard together, though the companies have areas of dispute," said Dwight Davis, a Microsoft analyst with Summit Strategies.
Davis doesn't think the lapse shows any ill intentions on the part of either party, though. "Certainly, [in this instance] there are no issues about working as well as possible on Intel's current generation of chips to make sure they're as in sync as possible," he said.
The glitch is more an issue of unclear branding than performance degradation, according to Peter Glaskowsky, a senior analyst at MicroDesign Resources, although the mistaken identity may cause confusion among new PC customers as well as experienced users building their own systems.
"Architecturally, the chip is a Pentium II with added instructions," said Glaskowsky. "It has the better Katmai instructions, which are not used by most software, and not used by any old software."
Users wanting to upgrade the chips in their Windows 95 systems will only gain from the increase in clock speed, and therefore may want to hold off on popping the new chip in.
"If you're going to run a legacy system and a legacy application on a Pentium III, it really doesn't matter," said Intel's High. "It will perform like a Pentium II at the same frequency. It may be slightly better, but it won't be any great shakes."
Ultimately, many users may not notice the discrepancy. That is because the companies that develop BIOS software which identifies the processor for the user during the boot-up process are expected to update this software by the time the Pentium III processor is available for retail sale as a standalone item.
Computer makers were contacted to comment on this story but did not return phone calls.
Microsoft is not currently testing any fixes for the error in its Windows 98 beta testing groups, Bennett said. There is no word yet on when the problem will be fixed, and the upcoming service pack will not address the issue.
"This is all just a temporary situation," Glaskowsky said. "Everyone will update the code to call out Pentium III."