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Pentium 4 on sale but can't be used

Avid computer fans can already get their hands on the processor, but a total lack of motherboards means that chips purchased now can't be used just yet.

Avid computer fans can already get their hands on the Pentium 4, two weeks before the chip's official debut, but a total lack of motherboards means that chips purchased now can't be used just yet.

A handful of computer dealers are already selling Intel's Pentium 4 processor, which is officially slated to debut Nov. 20. Dallas Memory International, for instance, is selling the 1.5-GHz Pentium 4 for $1,150 and the 1.4-GHz version of the chip for $990, not including shipping, said Alex Zhel, a company sales representative.

However, early purchasers won't get much of an early insight into the how the chip performs. Motherboards and chipsets, which connect the processor to hard drives and other PC components, won't be available for at least another week or so, dealers said.

"You can't do anything yet," Zhel said. "We've sold about five so far."

The Pentium 4 will mark an evolutionary step in Intel's product line and will likely allow the company to once again grab--at least temporarily--the coveted "world's fastest desktop chip" title from rival Advanced Micro Devices.

Although complete benchmarks have yet to emerge, Intel is promising marked performance over the Pentium III and, by implication, over AMD's Athlon chip. Competition with the Athlon family will likely be a huge issue for the semiconductor industry in 2001.

"The Pentium 4 will deliver about 25 percent faster performance (over the Pentium III) for MP3 decoding," Paul Otellini, general manager of the Intel Architecture Group, the division responsible for microprocessor production and design, said last week during a company Web broadcast for analysts.

Video encoding performance will improve by 50 percent, he added, while performance on 3D graphics and games like "Quake III" will improve by 50 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

The Pentium 4 embodies an entirely new design, or micro-architecture, that will serve as the basis for several generations of chips in the future.

Among other features, the Pentium 4 contains a Rapid Execution Engine, a microprocessor within a microprocessor that will effectively turbo-charge some functions. The Rapid Execution Engine, which runs at twice the speed of the processor, will be complemented by another component called the Execution Trace Cache, a fast reservoir of memory designed to keep the engine packed with data.

The last time Intel introduced a new micro-architecture was in 1996, when the Pentium Pro came out.

When it debuts, the 1.5-GHz Pentium 4 will cost approximately $795 each in quantities of 1,000, while the 1.4-GHz will sell for $625 in those quantities, according to PC industry sources. Consumer PCs containing the chip will sell for around $2,000 or more.

The retail price for single chips at the launch will invariably be higher, although price cuts due in January will bring down prices for computers and individual chips.

Supply will also be another major issue with the Pentium 4. Last October, Intel came out with a new, higher-performance version of its Pentium III processor, code-named Coppermine, that was in extremely tight supply the first day it arrived on the market. The shortage ended up contributing to AMD's market share gains with Athlon.

In March, Intel announced a 1-GHz Coppermine Pentium III that remained in tight supply for more than six months.

Intel has said it will produce "hundreds of thousands" of Pentium 4 chips this year, which is not many in the grand scheme of things. The company will work to ensure that the chip constitutes more than half of all of the company's microprocessor shipments by early 2002.

Although the Pentium 4 is unlikely to be an easy chip to find for a while, those selling the chip now, surprisingly, said that the current supply isn't so bad.

"The supply is actually decent," said Christine Corn, a sales representative at Ohio's Skyline Microsystems, which has sold a few of the chips.

"The supply is pretty good," added a sales representative at 1st Class Technology, which is selling the 1.5-GHz chip for $1,125, not including shipping. "It came out about two weeks ago." But because of the lack of motherboards, 1st Class hasn't sold a single chip yet.