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500-MHz chip in the works for Macs

Exponential is working on a PowerPC chip for the Mac that could reach 500 MHz.

Exponential Technology is working on a PowerPC chip for the Macintosh that could run as fast as 500 MHz when it appears next year, potentially leap-frogging Intel processors in performance and breathing some life into high-end Apple Computer machines.

Meanwhile, IBM and Motorola are not standing still; they are expected to announce availability of new 604 PowerPC processors in the coming weeks that will run as fast as 200 MHz.

The Exponential processor is based on a radical design intended for what has been traditionally an everyman's computer platform, the Mac. The main circuits of the chip use very-high-speed bipolar technology, as opposed to mainstream PC processors today, which consist mostly of a slower technology known as CMOS (Some, like Intel's Pentium, have a smattering of bipolar circuits.)

CMOS is popular for a good reason, however: it offers a nice balance between speed and power consumption, meaning the chips generate less heat. Pure bipolar technology, while delivering show-stopping speed, consumes a tremendous amount of power at high clock speeds and can get very hot.

But Exponential says it has a handle on this now. "We've tested [prototypes] in desktop and deskside boxes with typical air cooling and built to this target," said George Taylor, co-founder and chief technology officer at Exponential.

Indeed, the prospect of a chip running at 1.5 times, or even twice the speed of an Intel processor, could boost the appeal of the Apple platform in the low end or personal workstation market, an area once dominated by RISC-chip makers that Intel is sneaking into. Exponential says that, for now, it is targeting PCs in the $5,000-to-$10,000 range in 1997.

The Exponential processor is expected to make its debut running at a top speed of 500 MHz, said Michael Slater, publisher of the Sebastopol, California-based Microprocessor Report.

But he's not sure whether the technology is commercially viable, particularly in the face of an increasingly aggressive Intel--which is expected to showcase, if not actually ship in volume, chips running as fast as 300 MHz next year. "Until full details of the chip are released, we really don't know how [feasible] this is," Slater said. "They're either headed down a blind alley or will have an edge."

Especially because the appeal and viability of the Mac platform itself, with or without fast chips, is now being called into question.

"Even if they do deliver, you have to worry a little bit about how big this business is really going to be next year," Slater said, referring to Apple's recent travails.

The Apple platform also needs a suitable operating system for this kind of processing power, and Slater believes that the current Mac OS isn't up to the task. An upgrade known as Copland, due next year, presumably would be, but next year is a long time away in computer time.