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Intel to share Pentium 4 details at forum

The chipmaker will fill in the details on the Pentium 4 at its developer forum in San Jose, Calif., this week and will show off new chips for cell phones and handheld computers.

Intel will fill in the details on the Pentium 4 at its developer forum in San Jose, Calif., this week and will show off new chips for cell phones and handheld computers.

The Pentium 4 will feature a completely new architecture called "NetBurst" designed to handle tasks--such as data encryption, video compression or Napster-like peer-to-peer networking--that have grown in popularity with the Internet, said Albert Yu, senior vice president of the Intel Architecture Group.

"It will be the highest-performing processor for PCs," Yu said. "We're moving into streaming video; speech has become much more commonplace than a year ago. Peer-to-peer has been around for a long time, but it is now being recognized as the computing paradigm of the future."

New subsystems inside the NetBurst architecture will enable the processor to churn more data at a faster rate, Yu said. A micro-engine called the "Rapid Execution Engine," for example, will run at twice the speed of the processor and will handle frequently repeated tasks, such as addition and subtraction calculations.

In a preview of the chip at the company's headquarters, technicians showed how a Pentium 4 computer can rapidly render, or draw, 3D images downloaded from the Internet. That sort of processing power could make it easy for sellers on eBay to post virtual representations of their products, for example.

The chip, which will debut at 1.4 GHz and arrive in the fourth quarter, represents the first complete architectural overhaul of the company's processor line since 1995, when the Pentium Pro emerged. It will contain 42 million transistors, compared with 28 million for the Pentium III.

In the real world, the architectural changes will lead to better performance for multimedia applications, according to analysts, but incremental improvement with standard desktop applications such as word processing.

"A 1.5-GHz Pentium 4 will be 50 percent faster than a 1-GHz Pentium III, but at the system level the performance (improvement) will be much closer to 20 percent than 50 percent," said Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst with MicroDesign Resources.

"In the short term, there is going to be an incremental improvement, but the big news here is that the P4 is going to give Intel a lot of headroom in the future, not just for the fall but for 2002 and beyond," said Linley Gwennap, principal at the Linley Group.

For Intel, the chip's arrival couldn't come sooner. Manufacturing missteps and increased competition from Advanced Micro Devices have eroded the chip giant's once-unassailable dominance in the market for processors for performance PCs.

The tit-for-tat battle between the two will continue, said Glaskowsky, and vary by application.

"The new design of the P4 will let the P4 stay ahead of Athlon in terms of clock speed, but also in terms of performance," especially on some multimedia software, he said.

Nonetheless, "If AMD can catch up with the P4 in terms of clock speed, a 1.5-GHz Athlon will definitely be faster than a Pentium 4 at 1.5-GHz" on a number of applications, he added.

Yu and CEO Craig Barrett will be the first keynote speakers at the Intel Developer Forum, a three-day event that begins Tuesday in San Jose. The event largely serves as a forum for Intel and its associated developers to unfurl their road map for future technology.

Along with the Pentium 4, the company will provide updates on Itanium, the long-awaited 64-bit chip for servers.

While the Pentium 4 and Itanium will be targeted toward the performance end of the spectrum, the company will also emphasize the device market.

On Wednesday, Ron Smith, general manager of Intel's wireless computing group, will announce a new line of StrongArm chips--small, energy-efficient chips for handhelds and cell phones. Formerly code-named StrongArm 2, the new chips will come out at the end of the year.

"We are going to be introducing a variant of the StrongArm under a new brand name," the spokesman said.

One of the first customers for the chip may be Palm. The handheld computer leader has already said it plans to adopt processors based on the ARM architecture, a processor design licensed by England's ARM. StrongArm chips remain one of the most popular versions of the ARM design. Palm prototypes containing 200-MHz StrongArm chips were shown off at technology events earlier this year.

Still, the details surrounding the Pentium 4 will likely be the highlight of the conference. Since last October, chip shortages, combined with AMD's success with Athlon, have put the company on the defensive in the high end of the market.

Though analysts have expressed varying opinions on how well the Pentium 4 will perform, Yu said the NetBurst architecture will bring several new capabilities to the market.

The Rapid Execution Engine, for example, will "turbocharge a piece of the engine," Yu said, by shifting repetitive tasks out of the main processing and into a specialized, accelerated computing center inside the chip. The Rapid Execution Engine will then be complemented by an Execution Trace Cache, a fast reservoir of memory designed to keep the engine packed with data.

"The most interesting thing about the new architecture is the Execution Trace Cache," said Gwennap. "It will save a lot of time."

The cache will hold commonly used instructions in the sequence in which they get executed. Therefore, when the processor has to repeat a calculation, it won't have to start at the beginning. Instead, it will be able to grab a set of pre-digested commands, cutting out a number of administrative tasks, he said.

Other features will exist to speed data flow and make it more efficient. "Advanced Dynamic Execution" will speed processing by allowing the processor to recognize parallel patterns and prioritize tasks. In all, the chip will be capable of handling six instructions per clock cycle over extended periods. The Pentium III typically handles three.

The chip also comes with 144 new multimedia instructions for better graphics and sound. By rewriting their software with the instructions in mind, software developers will be able to improve application performance.

"The Internet is going from a text kind of thing to something more visual," Yu said.

In addition, the Pentium 4 will contain a 20-stage pipeline. The pipeline is a processor's assembly line. While this means the Pentium 4 will have a line twice the length of the 10-stage Pentium III, the longer pipeline will create room for speeding up the chip.

The length of the pipeline has created a debate among analysts concerning how the chip will perform. Longer pipelines allow processor designers to ratchet up the processor's speed. However, a longer pipeline creates "latency" problems. If an instruction gets misplaced at stage 18, the chip has to return to stage one.

The trace cache will ameliorate many of these problems and lead to an overall improvement in speed, said Gwennap. Glaskowsky agreed but cautioned that the benefit may not be as big as Intel might want customers to believe.

Whether Intel can manufacture the chip in volume will also be a major question at the conference and beyond, as the company has struggled to produce 1-GHz Pentium IIIs in significant volume.

Yu said the Pentium 4 will be in volume production toward the end of the year. An Intel spokesman said that "hundreds of thousands" of the chips will come out this year.

Historically, that would mean the Pentium 4 will be in shorter supply than when the Pentium II or other new chips came out, but likely in larger quantities than the first 1-GHz Pentium IIIs.

In addition, as with the original Pentium, the basic architecture of the Pentium 4 will become the foundation of the company's processors for the next five to seven years. Following Moore's Law, this would lead to chips running at more than 11 GHz in 2006.

"A microarchitecture typically lasts five to seven years, and this one is no exception," Yu said.