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IBM to unleash new PowerPC chip

Once again, the stage will be set for debates over gigahertz comparisons to Intel chips. Will Apple benefit from the power boost?

IBM will put its PowerPC processor line back on the map Monday when it talks up a speedy chip that promises a substantial performance boost for desktops and servers.

The PowerPC 970 chip, due next year, will run at 1.8GHz, nearly twice as fast as Big Blue's quickest existing PowerPC chip, the 1GHz 750FX. It will also be able to handle both 32-bit software, the current standard on desktops, and 64-bit software, used on high-end servers.

Engineers from IBM's Microelectronics division will disclose the details of the new chip for the first time at this week's Microprocessor Forum in San Jose, Calif.

The new chip might prove a boon to Apple Computer, which could use it to substantially narrow a growing performance gap with the PC world--PC chips will run at 3GHz by the end of the year. Sources familiar with IBM and Apple's plans said that Apple will be a customer for the PowerPC 970 next year. Apple did not return calls for comment.

"It makes logical sense that Apple would at least evaluate the chip. It would be perfect for the Xserve and for content creation," said Kevin Krewell, executive editor of the Microprocessor Report, which sponsors the forum. Xserve is Apple's rack-mounted server.

While not a complete measure, faster clock speeds generally lead to better performance, and Intel and Advanced Micro Devices have been boosting clock speeds all year. And consumers often use clock speed numbers to guide buying decisions. IBM has been eyeing the 2GHz mark for some time.

At the level of "2x gigahertz, we will compete very reasonably against the (Intel) Pentium," said Chekib Akrout, vice president of microprocessor development at IBM Microelectronics.

"This is another situation where frequency is not a good indication of performance," said Krewell. PowerPC chips are "losing the gigahertz race, but with all the performance (IBM) packed into this architecture, it's going to be competitive with the performance of the Pentium 4 in 2003."

The new chip will also give Apple an opportunity to move into the 64-bit world and expand its market. Computers with 32-bit chips can "address," or access, only a limited amount of memory. Chips with 64-bit addresses can access far more. In servers, this capability is already valuable, and a growing number of workstation users are demanding large amounts of memory. In a few years, enthusiast home users will be asking for greater amounts of memory.

As previously reported, the PowerPC 970 borrows its design from the Power4, the chip used in IBM's showcase servers. But PowerPC 970 will be much smaller, faster and less power hungry, allowing for its use in desktops or low-end servers.

The chip's potent mixture--speed, 64-bit addressing and the ability to perform large numbers of calculations--will significantly boost performance for potential customers, engineers from IBM said. IBM's Power chips, such as the Power4, are based on the same basic RISC processor architecture as its PowerPC processors but represent two distinct implementations.

The Power4, for example, has two chip cores, or brains, in the same piece of silicon and handles 64-bit applications. Different divisions inside the company manage and develop the Power and PowerPC families.

Editing very large video files is one area where desktops could use the extra performance of the PowerPC 970 and take advantage of the large amounts of memory afforded by 64-bits. Meanwhile, the extra memory allowed by 64-bits boosts performance for server applications like databases.

The software factor
One of the biggest parts of a transition to the PowerPC 970 for Apple or any other customer will involve adapting software to take full advantage of the new capabilities.

Existing 32-bit software and operating systems based on Linux, Unix or Apple's Mac OS X (derived from Unix) will run on the new PowerPC chip. But to take advantage of larger amounts of memory afforded by 64 bits, software makers will have to renovate their operating systems and applications.

IBM will use the chip internally in a project of its own, sources indicated, and the chip will also be sold to customers in the embedded and communications markets, two PowerPC strongholds.

IBM will manufacture the PowerPC 970 in its newest chip plant, located in East Fishkill, N.Y., using its 130-nanometer (0.13 micron) silicon-on-insulator process. SOI allows IBM to boost clock speed and hold down power consumption by better insulating transistors.

Though IBM says the 1.8GHz PowerPC 970 will be the first in a family of chips, the company would not say when the chip will reach higher speeds, such as 2GHz, or if it will be available at slower speeds for applications like notebooks.

IBM is expected, however, to move the chip quickly to a 90-nanometer manufacturing process, which will let it boost the chip's clock speed. Companies will start to make 90-nanometer chips in the second half of 2003.

Although IBM will disclose technical details on the chip's architecture at the Microprocessor Forum, pricing and other commercial details won't emerge until the chip ships in the second half of next year.