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Intel's Pentium future is mobile

Intel provides the first details on the latest strategies for its bread-and-butter product: the Pentium.

SANTA CLARA, California--Intel (INTC) on Tuesday set out the first details on several critical new strategies for its bread-and-butter processor business.

The company intends to hold competitors at bay with new plans for its core product line, the Pentium processor. First on the list is to fill a gap in its product line by making the most architecturally advanced Pentiums exclusively for mobile computers. On the other end of the spectrum, the company will relegate the Pentium Pro processor to server systems alone before slowly, but surely, phasing out this current high-end chip architecture to make way for the Pentium II.

Executives outlined Intel's plans at a briefing here, one day after Intel posted solid first-quarter earnings (see related story) and one week after the entrance of competitor Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) into the market for high-speed Pentium- and Pentium II-class processors.

Intel executives also detailed a new architectural idea for its processors that will let the company wring more performance from its chips.

The company is planning to deliver its Pentium II chips packaged in what it calls a cartridge. The processor, its accompanying memory chips, and peripheral chips all come on the same small circuit board inside a cartridge that plugs into a slot in the computer's motherboard.

Intel argues that the cartridge design has a number of benefits. One is that the design allows Intel to keep tighter control over how the processor interacts with the peripheral chips that will be crammed into the cartridge. Their proximity lets Intel tweak and boost the performance of both the processor and the rest of the PC.

The plan will also keep AMD and other competitors at bay because Intel cartridges will be based on a proprietary design that other chip makers will not be able to copy. That means that PC makers who design their motherboards to accommodate the cartridges will be committing themselves to Intel more permanently than ever before.

The company on Tuesday showed a 233-MHz Pentium II processor in a cartridge, a design slightly wider and longer than a cassette tape. The first Pentium II won't be officially introduced until May.

Intel plans to design cartridges for specific types of computers, including desktop, mobile, and server computers, said Ted Odell, manager of Intel's cartridge processor development group.

Intel also intends to raise the speed at which the cartridge communicates with the rest of the computer--a potentially severe performance bottleneck in a PC. This speed is currently stuck at a mere 66 MHz but the company has its sights set on 100 MHz. The company also confirmed that the Pentium II will eventually reach speeds of 400 MHz and higher.

But the cartridge represents Intel's future, not the present where it faces challenges on the mobile processor front. Intel is quite vulnerable right now since the company the lacks super-fast chips for notebooks and laptops.

To remedy this, Intel said that future Pentium processors made with the latest Intel production technology--referred to as "0.25"--are being designed and manufactured specifically for notebook PC and mobile computers. Speeds of these low-power MMX Pentiums will be "well in excess of 200 MHz," according to Robert Jecmen, a vice president in charge of manufacturing at Intel.

"This is the first time Intel has targeted mobile as a lead product on technology generations," Jecmen said.

Intel confirmed that these mobile Pentiums will be available in the second half of this year, when they are expected to appear at speeds of 200 and 233 MHz. Currently, Intel mobile Pentium MMX processors top out at 166 MHz.

The company is hoping to allay fears that its desktop chips are outpacing its notebook chips with high megahertz ratings for upcoming notebook-use Pentiums. But the gap between desktop PC processing performance and that of notebook PCs may remain a thorn in Intel's side. One example: The Pentium II is expected to be Intel's highest-performing processor but is not designed for notebooks.

"Users obviously would like to have no gap at all. This basically will keep things from getting any worse," said Linley Gwennap, editor-in-chief of the Microprocessor Report.

On the high end of the processor spectrum, Intel confirmed that it intends to relegate the current Pentium Pro processor to server designs only, prior to phasing out the current Pentium Pro design altogether.

[The Pentium Pro] is not a mainstream processor. It's not something we expect to make in the tens of millions," said Odell.

"It is not conducive to low-cost, high-volume production," Gwennap added, referring to production obstacles that Intel has faced with the chip.

The Pentium Pro has been a expensive chip to manufacture for Intel from the beginning. It includes not only the processor but also a large chunk of "L2" cache memory next to the processor inside the chip's package. This makes the chip more difficult to test and drives up the total transistor count to more than 30 million for versions with a large cache. The Pentium, by contrast, has between 3 million and 4 million transistors.

The future Pentium II is a simpler design since the L2 cache memory is moved out of the chip package and onto the processor's circuit board, where it is much cheaper to manufacture.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.