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IBM enters the copper age

Big Blue is the first to ship a copper-based processor, although the chips may not find their way into computers until next year.

IBM's new copper chip marks the computing giant's bid for glory in the microprocessor world.

All other major chipmakers, including Intel, Sun Microsystems, and Compaq Computer through its Alpha partners, have said they will move to copper in one or two processor generations. But with shipments that began today, IBM has crossed the metallic Rubicon, becoming the first company to release a copper-based processor.

Running at 400 MHz, IBM's Power PC 740/750 released today differs from other microprocessors in that the wires are made of copper, rather than aluminum. Copper conducts electricity better and is expected to lead to more powerful processors that consume less energy and take up less space than their aluminum counterparts.

Although the processors may not find their way into computers until next year, all future versions of the PowerPC chip from IBM will be based around copper. Future chips will allow IBM to boost speeds to 1,000 MHz and beyond.

Adding to its appeal, the switch to copper isn't particularly expensive. The 32-bit 400-MHz PowerPC 750 will sell for $605 in quantities of 1,000, according to IBM spokesman Bill O'Leary, barely more than the $589 400-MHz Pentium II.

Apple Computer is expected to incorporate the chip into its computers by early 1999. Meanwhile, prototypes of a 64-bit Power chip based around copper will begin to appear later this year while servers, mainframes, and workstations adopting the 64-bit copper chips will appear in 1999. A number of other companies will adopt IBM's copper technology for specially designed ASIC chips as well.

For the next few chip generations, copper will only provide a incremental boost of performance over aluminum, according to many analysts. The difference in metals, however, will become pronounced when chips start to get manufactured on a very advanced "0.13-micron" manufacturing process.

The micron measurement refers to the distance between circuits a microprocessor. The smaller the number, the faster, and more powerful the processor can be.

"You really need 0.13," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Dataquest. "It's like city traffic with traffic lights on every corner. With 0.18, you get to the traffic light a lot faster, but you spend a lot more time waiting at the light. When you get to 0.13, the traffic lights start getting shorter."

The chips released by IBM today are actually based on a 0.22-micron manufacturing process. While IBM admits that copper only makes a minor difference now, the experience the company gains now will relieve it of future development tasks.

"The copper process is behind us," O'Leary said. "Other people will be moving to both at the same time, a generation of [manufacturing] technology and a new metallization process."

Although today's release is heralded as a breakthrough, IBM has been manufacturing chips based around aluminum designs with copper, O'Leary admitted. The current 333-MHz and 366-MHz PowerPC chips from IBM are made with copper circuitry. On those chips, there has been a mere substitution of metals. The 400-MHz chip released today is tweaked to take advantage of copper.