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Intel accelerates plans to release high-speed chips

The processor giant advances its "road map" for 2000, and will come out with 850-MHz and 866-MHz Pentium IIIs in the first quarter.

On Monday Intel released the 800-MHz Pentium III processor ahead of its original schedule, and apparently that's just the tip of the iceberg.

The Santa Clara, Calif., manufacturer has advanced its "road map" for 2000, and will come out with 850-MHz and 866-MHz Pentium IIIs in the year's first quarter, according to a presentation obtained by the HardOCP hardware discussion site. In addition, a 1-GHz Pentium III has been added to the chip giant's plans and is scheduled to appear in the fourth quarter of 2000.

Intel declined to comment on unannounced plans. But moving up the release dates of these and other chips is in line with the company's previous response to increased competition from rival Advanced Micro Devices.

"That's absolutely consistent with this week's actions," said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood, referring to Monday's announcement of the top-end 800-MHz Pentium III. "Intel always has to have in reserve three or four speed grades so they can continue the quarterly progression that has become a fact of the market."

The flagship Pentium III will make a pit stop at 933 MHz in the third quarter while Celeron, the processor for budget computers, will rise to speeds of 633 MHz and beyond next year. A processor with integrated graphics capabilities, code-named Timna, will debut at the end of the third quarter at 600 MHz.

In addition, a host of chipsets, the silicon which serves as a bridge between the processor and the rest of the computer, will come out as well, according to the document. These chipsets will run at 100 MHz and 133 MHz and will work with Rambus memory or standard memory running at different speeds.

The main reason for the advanced schedule is Athlon, AMD's performance processor. The chip has received rave reviews from benchmark testers, who have noted that Athlons and Pentium III run neck-and neck with AMD taking the edge in certain tests but losing in others. Perhaps more important, AMD has not hit any debilitating manufacturing snags, a problem the company had in the past.

As a result, Intel is pushing its monster-sized, worldwide manufacturing capabilities to pump out faster chips in less time than ever before.

"They are really concerned about AMD," said Linley Gwennap, publisher of the Microprocessor Report. "AMD has Intel sweating."

Perhaps deliberately, Intel sprang the news of the 800-MHz chip at the beginning of a two-week holiday at AMD, whose representatives were not available for comment. "It's getting to be like with Clinton and Congress," when the president makes announcements when Congress isn't in session, Brookwood quipped.

However, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD "clearly is positioned to come back with an 800-MHz product early in the year," likely before Jan. 6, Brookwood said.

The arrival of the 1-GHz Pentium III is also interesting, Brookwood said. "There was general concern that the current Coppermine core would max out at 933 MHz," he said. Coppermine is the newest Pentium III design, introduced in October.

The Intel chip road map also shows a growing gap between the higher-end Pentium III chips and their lower-end Celeron brethren.

The clock speed difference between the two lines was only 100 MHz at the beginning of this quarter, with Celerons running at 500 MHz and Pentium IIIs at 600 MHz. But a year from now that gap will be more than 300 MHz, when Pentium IIIs will have hit 1 GHz but the Celeron will still be in the 600-MHz range. In addition, the Pentium IIIs will benefit from a faster system for communicating with memory.

Intel wants to let the development pace of the Celerons slow down to make sure they don't compete with high-end chips with comparable performance, Brookwood said. "It got to be a problem, with clock rates at the low end more or less tracking what was at the high end. It was getting hard to defend [buying] an $800 processor when you could get a $150 processor that seemingly had the same level of performance."

With AMD mostly focusing on the high end, Intel can be a bit more complacent with the Celerons, Brookwood said. Still, AMD will keep pressure on with new versions of its budget K6-2 and K6-3. A discount version of the Athlon will also come out mid-2000.

Separately, Intel will be coming out with its first 64-bit chip, Itanium, toward the middle of 2000. The company is currently shipping prototype processors running at between 500 MHz and 600 MHz to computer makers for testing. When released, Itanium will run at much higher speeds, Brookwood said.

Though Intel has advanced its chip schedule, the fastest chips will be scarce. For instance, Dell and Gateway both announced 800-MHz systems yesterday. A Dell spokeswoman admitted, however, that it takes about 20 days to prepare and ship an 800-MHz computer, putting delivery into the next year. Computers with slower processors can be at the consumer's door in five days.

Part of the acceleration also comes from a fundamental change in Intel's business practices. Until recently, Intel would manufacture thousands of new chips before announcing them so that there were ample supplies of PCs in the sales channel.

Now, the company is announcing chips when only limited supplies are available, which allows Intel to release the chips at a faster rate. An Intel spokesman said that this pattern should continue in the future, especially as more PC companies move to the build-to-order manufacturing method.

Ironically, AMD has been hurt in the past by an inability to manufacture enough chips to meet the demands of PC makers, noted Microprocessor Report's Gwennap, a track record that Intel executives have been known to mention.

AMD may be able to go on the offensive with plans to introduce chips that have faster copper technology and special high-speed "cache" memory built into the chip. "If AMD can accomplish those two things on schedule, they would be in a position to put a little bit of distance between themselves and Intel by late in the second quarter," Brookwood said.

"In the past, watching Intel compete with AMD was a really dull tennis match. Intel would serve the ball and AMD would never be able to return it," Brookwood said. "Now, Intel serves, and AMD so far has demonstrated a pretty good ability to return those serves."