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Intel hastily redraws road maps

The company's decision to drop two chips and move to a technology that promises better performance is seen as a major shift, but the new plans are short on detail.

Intel has redrawn its product plans for 2005, shelving two chips and announcing vague plans about the processors that will come out next year.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker confirmed that it will shelve Tejas, a version of the Pentium 4 due out later this year, and Jayhawk, a similar Xeon chip for servers that had been slated for 2005.

In their place, Intel will come out with dual-core chips for desktops in 2005 and for notebooks in 2005 or 2006, an Intel representative said. Earlier, Intel had indicated that dual-core chips for these markets might not appear until 2006 or later.

Dual-core chips can provide far better performance than traditional single-core chips. Intel's plans, however, appear to be quite vague at the moment. The representative could not identify code names for the new products. It is also unclear whether the chips will be made using the 90-nanometer manufacturing process or the newer 65-nanometer process.

"Dual-core is a more sane way for getting more performance without breaking other things."
--Dean McCarron, analyst,
Mercury Research

Typically, when announcing new chips, Intel provides the new code names and sometimes describes the manufacturing process.

The chips also have not "taped out," the representative said, which means that the design is not yet finalized. Tape-out usually occurs a year before shipment.

The shift in the company's product plans likely comes as a way to get around the problem of excess power consumption, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. The circuits on chips have become so small, and the chips are consuming so much power, that it is becoming extremely difficult and expensive to keep the temperature inside PCs down. Excess internal heat can cause signaling problems and melt parts.

The current line of top-end Pentium 4s each consume 100 watts, or more than most household lightbulbs. Much of that energy is lost in leakage. By making a dual-core chip with each chip running at a moderate speed, Intel can increase peformance and reduce power consumption.

"The benefits of increasing clock frequency are beginning to be offset by the liabilities of heat dissipation," Brookwood said. "They won't be pushing as hard on clock frequency as they did in the past."

The change was also likely prompted by opportunism, said Dean McCarron, an analyst at Mercury Research. Right now, about three-fourths of the real estate on Intel's desktop chips consists of cache, or high-speed memory built into the processor.

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Intel engineers probably determined that they could get more benefits, both in terms of performance and power consumption, by using a smaller cache and two cores. The company also likely has already figured out many of the problems that come with moving to dual-core chips, anyway, as they plan to bring out a dual-core Itanium in 2005.

"Dual-core is a more sane way for getting more performance without breaking other things," he said. "You get more performance out of the transistors." McCarron added that Intel is a planning-centric company, so shifts like this are out of character.

Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata, added that the success of Pentium M has made Intel comfortable with lower chip speeds.

Chip analyst Peter Glaskowsky, however, said that the move underscores major problems at Intel. When it introduced the Pentium 4 in 2000, the company said the underlying architecture would last a decade. Now, it appears the architecture will start to get phased out in the next few years. Additionally, Intel may start to lose some credibility with hardware makers, Glaskowsky said. A few months ago, the company reversed itself and followed AMD into 32/64-bit chips.

Additionally, the dual-core chips may not score well on benchmarks.

"The Pentium 4 has just not delivered what it should have. It was a billion-dollar effort," he said, adding "AMD will totally kill them on benchmarks" in 2005.

Engineers and designers first began to discuss the looming crisis in 2000, and power consumption has already been taking its toll on Intel. Despite three years of fairly flawless execution, Intel had to slightly delay the release of Prescott, the latest Pentium 4, to February in order to solve some power consumption problems. It then announced a 3.4GHz Prescott earlier this year and said it would come out in April. The chip has only just begun to come out in limited volumes, according to sources.

Dothan, a notebook chip coming out on Monday, was supposed to come out earlier this year.

To get around future power consumption issues, Intel already plans to bring its notebook chip designs to desktops with Jonah in 2007.