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Faster Pentium 4 desktop chips on tap

Chipmaker Intel will bring out a new, faster version of the Pentium 4 for desktops next week, and other PC performance improvements are on the horizon.

Intel will bring out a new, faster version of the Pentium 4 for desktops next week, and chipsets and other technology for improving overall PC performance and cutting costs will pour out over the next two months.

April and May will be a busy time for the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker as well as its archrival, Advanced Micro Devices. Early next week, Intel will release a 2.4GHz version of the Pentium 4, which will be seen in new PCs coming from major manufacturers the same week.

Besides being the fastest member of the Intel processor line, the new 2.4GHz product will also be the smallest version of the chip to date, measuring only 131.4 square millimeters, according to a company representative. That makes it 10 percent smaller than current high-end Pentium 4s, a change that will ease manufacturing costs. The 2.4GHz chip will sell for around $560 each in volume quantities.

Subsequently, Intel will release two new chipsets for the Pentium 4, sources said. If the processor is the master element of a computer, the chipset is the butler, endlessly shuttling data back and forth from the processor, memory and other components.

First up will be the 845(g), a new chipset containing integrated graphics and built-in functionality for USB 2.0, according to sources. Adding graphics onto the chipset cuts manufacturing costs, which has made integrated chipsets popular with budget consumers and companies.

There's also a price advantage in integrating USB 2.0 into the chipset, a move expected to foster the connection standard, which lets users plug digital cameras and other peripherals into PCs. To date, only a handful of PC makers have adopted the standard because it currently requires extra chips. Version 2.0 is substantially faster than USB 1.0 and is expected to rival FireWire, a connection technology invented by Apple that's gaining vogue with Sony and other PC makers.

The 845(g) will be able to hook up with standard memory, called SDRAM (synchronous dynamic RAM), or with double data rate (DDR) DRAM, a faster variant of SDRAM. Intel has confirmed the product's general specifications and its second-quarter debut, but not the exact release date.

Then, on May 6, Intel will follow up with a new chipset, the 850(e), which will contain a 533MHz system bus, according to sources. The system bus is the data path between the chipset and the processor. To date, the Pentium 4 has featured a 400MHz system bus. Unlike the 845, the 850 chipset will work with memory based on designs from Rambus.

May will also mark the commercial delivery of chips made on 300-millimeter wafers, according to Intel. Currently, most semiconductors are punched out of silicon wafers with 200-millimeter diameters. By shifting to the dinner plate-sized wafers, Intel will be able to produce 2.25 times as many chips with little additional overhead.

As a result, the volume of Pentium 4 chips will increase while the price will decline, according to Intel executives and analysts.

Overall, Intel will produce "approximately 10 times as many Pentium 4s in the first quarter as the same period a year ago," a company representative said.

Meanwhile, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD will soon unveil "Thoroughbred," a new, faster version of its Athlon XP chip, sources said. Thoroughbred is expected to appear first in notebooks and then move to desktops.

Intel's latest technology and AMD's Thoroughbred will be tightly matched in terms of performance.

"Intel might have an advantage for a quarter or two," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64.

The two companies will also be tightly matched on cost. Thoroughbred measures only 80 square millimeters, but will be made on 200-millimeter wafers. "AMD may still have a very small advantage, but they are close enough where neither guy can undercut the other," he said.

On April 23, AMD will also mark a significant moment in its history when Jerry Sanders hands the CEO title over to company President Hector Ruiz. The flamboyant, silver-haired Sanders, who once considered going to Hollywood to become a film star, has been AMD's only CEO in its 30-year-plus history. He will remain as chairman.