Pentium 4 overhaul set for 2005

Intel is working on "Nehalem," an architectural redesign of its Pentium 4 processor, which sources say will debut in the first half of 2005.

Tech Industry
Intel is working on a major overhaul of the Pentium 4 chip, which sources say will debut in the first half of 2005.

Code-named Nehalem, the chip will embody a new architecture that will substantially differ from the current Pentium 4, according to sources. Concepts in the current chip line will be found in Nehalem, but it will contain new, and largely unknown, features such as improved power management that will mark it as a distinct evolutionary step, similar to the changeover from the Pentium II to the Pentium III.

In the meantime, Intel is also working on updates to the Pentium 4. In the second half of 2003, the company will release "Prescott," a Pentium 4 variant that will feature a new security system and "strained silicon," a chipmaking method that speeds up transistors.

In the first part of 2004, the company will release "Tejas," which will likely be an enhanced version of Prescott. "Dothan," a successor to the upcoming notebook chip "Banias," will appear around the same time.

Intel declined to comment on Nehalem, Tejas or Dothan. Various sources, however, confirmed the names, which were first published by PC Watch, a computer magazine in Japan.

Microprocessors will likely undergo a massive overhaul over the next decade. For more than three decades, semiconductor manufacturers have been able to keep pace with Moore's Law, which postulates that as transistor size shrinks, the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years. The more transistors a chip has, the more calculations or functions it can handle.

Now, however, designers are hitting physical barriers. Transistors, which next year will contain features measuring 45 nanometers, or billionths of a meter, have become so small that they "leak" substantial amounts of electricity. The heat generated by these tiny machines, some of which will contain a half a billion transistors by next year, needs to be dissipated.

Banias, appearing in the first half of 2003, will showcase a number of technologies that Intel hopes will curb these problems. So-called micro ops fusion, for instance, will combine routine instructions and tasks, thereby saving time and energy, the company has said. Advanced branch prediction will let a processor better schedule tasks to improve efficiency. Even wireless chips will shut down when not in use to conserve power.

Although the chip will contain 77 million transistors, far more than the 54 million found on the Pentium 4, it will consume less than a watt of power while idling, far less than other chips.

Later in the year, Prescott will emerge. The chip will be the first Intel chip manufactured on the 90-nanometer process. (In that process, the average feature size of chips will measure 90 nanometers, rather than the 130 nanometers found on today's fastest chips.).

In its 90-nanometer manufacturing, Intel will incorporate strained silicon. In this design technique, germanium atoms, which are larger than silicon, are mixed in with silicon on the base layers of the chip. On layers above the mixed layer, silicon atoms get spaced further apart, or stretched.

When the atoms are spread, electrons can move more rapidly, improving performance without gunning the electricity.

Prescott will also come with "LeGrande," a technology intended to protect credit card numbers and other data kept on hard drives from viruses, hackers and prying eyes.

Because Tejas will follow so closely on the release of Prescott, sources have predicted that it won't likely differ substantially.

Nehalem, however, will be markedly different, but it's unclear how. Intel is currently working on two new types of transistors--called the terahertz and tri-gate--that will reduce energy, but both inventions seem destined to debut after Nehalem. The company is also experimenting with dual-core chips.

Nehalem is likely a project in Intel's Oregon labs. The name comes from a coastal town known for fishing and wineries.

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