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Intel releases new Xeon chip to little fanfare

The chip giant unveils an improved version of its Pentium III Xeon processor for servers and workstations, but computer manufacturers yawn because the Pentium III is very similar.

An improved version of Intel's Pentium III Xeon processor was greeted with yawns from computer manufacturers which see the new chip as too similar to the standard Pentium III.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip giant yesterday introduced an 800-MHz version of its Xeon. Arguably Intel's most powerful processor to date, the chip can be used in complex multiprocessor server and workstation systems.

Unfortunately, the chip's performance characteristics are almost identical to the recently released 800-MHz Pentium III, according to industry analysts and PC company personnel. But while the Xeon costs $901 per chip in volume quantities, the Pentium III goes for $50 less.

Perhaps as a result, no major PC makers announced equipment using the chip, an Intel spokesman confirmed, although a number of companies are planning products for the near future.

Xeon's identity crisis stems from an overlap on Intel's product road map. Historically, Xeon processors have outperformed Pentium II or III chips running at the same clock speed, but recent changes have minimized the difference, undermining the Xeon's market appeal.

Xeons contain the same processor "core" as standard Pentium II or Pentium III chips but typically have come with a "secondary cache" that was both larger and faster than the cache on standard Pentium IIIs. Secondary cache is a memory reservoir located near the processor that keeps the chip fed with data. The character of the cache helps determine the processor's overall ability.

Until recently, the secondary cache for both the Pentium III and Xeon lines came on separate memory chips. In October, though, Intel launched the "Coppermine" Pentium III and Pentium III Xeon processors, both of which come with integrated cache, which runs faster than the older, separate cache.

While integration of a 256K cache raised the bar for Intel's chips, it largely erased the differences between the Pentium IIIs and Xeons coming out just now.

"The Xeons basically are all Pentium IIIs," Dean McCarron, principal at Mercury Research, summarized in a November interview.

Xeons with larger caches are coming, but they aren't here yet.

The chip is still relatively popular in servers, especially the more elaborate multiprocessor boxes. Both Compaq and Dell, for instance, incorporate Xeon in their more expensive "enterprise" class severs, and put Pentium IIIs in the less expensive single- or dual-processor servers for workgroups or small offices.

The chip has been less used in the smaller workstation market. Since the differences have been reduced, Dell and HP have not picked up any new Xeons, opting instead to use Pentium IIIs.

In fact, HP has said that its future workstation products will only contain Pentium IIIs: Just yesterday the company released a new workstation that incorporates the 733-MHz Pentium III. The system also forsakes Rambus-style memory, which Intel has been pushing.

Xeons coming later this year will contain 1MB and 2MB of cache. This will once again create a difference between the Pentium III and the Xeon line.

But the line will find itself atop the Intel chip family for a limited time. By the middle of the year, Intel is planning to release Itanium, its first 64-bit processor, and "Willamette," a new family of 32-bit processors based around a more advanced architecture. Both chips will likely outperform the current Xeon design.