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Chips faster than a speeding bullet

The biggest names in the chip business will gather together at a chip conference in February to introduce super-fast processors.

The biggest names in the chip business will gather together in February to introduce super-fast processors ranging in speed from a 300-MHz P6 chip from Intel (INTC) to a 600-MHz processor from Digital Equipment (DEC).

The new chips will debut at the IEEE International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco in early February.

Intel will focus its attention at the conference on its P6 family of processors. The company will show for the first time a member of that family that will use 7.5 million transistors and run at 300 MHz, according to a ISSCC97 Advance Program sheet. That compares to a 200-MHz Pentium Pro with 5.5 million transistors, which is Intel's current fastest processor.

And unlike the Pentium Pro chip, the new P6 will also feature the company's MMX multimedia technology to speed the performance of applications that rely on graphics, video, audio and communications. MMX multimedia functions are expected to obviate the need for high-end, expensive add-on video cards and some communications components for entry-level PCs, as well as enhance the performance of multimedia hardware on more expensive PCs.

The new P6 processor will have an on-chip 32KB cache. To date, the largest cache of this type Intel has offered is only 16KB. The chip will also come with a special bus--a "path" for carrying data between components--for hooking up to a high-speed external cache.

Processors generally need data much faster than typical memory chips can deliver the data and a cache is very-high-speed memory that can continue to feed data as fast as the processor needs it, thereby keeping the processor from "starving" for data. Personal computers generally have two caches : a level-one cache, usually built into the processor itself, and a level-two cache, most often external to the processor.

A rare exception is the current Pentium Pro which actually integrates a 256KB level-two cache (in addition to the 16KB level-one cache) into the chip package. The new P6 Intel is discussing at the conference, however, will not have an integrated level-2 cache but substitute this with the high-speed bus connection to an external level-two cache.

The new P6 could be a second-generation Klamath P6 processor, known by the code name of Deschutes, though Intel would not confirm this. Deschutes is similar to Klamath but is smaller and faster. Klamath is expected to run at 233- and 266-MHz and be introduced in the second quarter of next year. Deschutes is expected to be introduced late in 1997 or early 1998.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.

Although Intel's chip is likely to generate the most interest because of the Pentium's dominance of the desktop market, it will be Digital that will once again demonstrate the fastest chip at the show with a 600-MHz Alpha RISC processor.

The fastest chip that Digital has announced to date runs at 500 MHz, in itself significantly faster than anything Intel has to offer. But while Digital itself uses the Alpha processor in its workstations and servers, the chip hasn't penetrated deeply outside Digital's own market.

The Alpha processor will have estimated performance ratings of 40 SPECint95 and 60 SPECfp95. Both of these ratings indicate extremely high performance. The 200-MHz Intel Pentium Pro, for example, has a 8.09 SPECint95 and a 6.70 SPECfp95. SPECint95 generally indicates performance on business-type applications while SPECfp95 is usually a good indicator of performance on scientific and engineering applications.

Advanced Micro Devices will discuss an Intel-compatible chip designed to compete with the P6-class of processors. The company's engineering specification calls for the use of 8.8 million transistors. Like Intel's 300-MHz introduction, the new AMD chip will include MMX technology.

Other processors that will be demonstrated at the conference include :

--A 533-MHz PowerPC processor from Exponential Technology.
--A 550 MHz Alpha-compatible processor from Mitsubishi Electric, which includes 13 additional instructions for the Digital Alpha architecture and support for MPEG-2 decoding embedded directly in the processor.
--A 330-MHz processor from Sun Microsystems.