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Pentium II chained to older design

Intel is expected to release the fastest of its fastest chips later this month, but major performance gains are not expected until later this year.

Intel is expected to release the fastest of its fastest chips later this month, but don't expect major performance gains--those will come later when Intel modifies a core part of the intercomponent "plumbing" for the Pentium II.

The newest Pentium II, expected to be officially announced at the end of this month, will reach a top speed of 333 MHz, up from 300 MHz, as an Intel executive indicated yesterday: "We [have begun] volume shipments of the 333-MHz version of this product in anticipation of its introduction later this month," Paul Otellini, executive vice president director at the Sales and Marketing Group, said yesterday.?

This will be the first Pentium II made on Intel's most advanced manufacturing process, said Richard Dracott, marketing director at Intel. The .25 micron process will allow speeds to zoom up to at least 450 MHz, said Dracott.

Yet the newest and speediest Intel processor line is still chained, in some respects, to an older PC architecture which can keep the chip from realizing its full potential for some applications, particularly sophisticated ones. This will change, and the biggest performance gains for the Pentium II will come, when Intel fattens the data pipe, or "bus," to which the processor is hooked.? This allows for an increase in the flow of data which, in turn, makes conditions optimal for chips running at speeds of 400 MHz and higher.

"Certainly, a faster bus is going to be most helpful in the workstation and server environment. In those areas particularly the [older] bus is running out of gas. In standard desktop PCs, it's still a reasonable design point," said Linley Gwennap, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report.

Currently, the Pentium II connects to a bus which runs at a tepid 66 MHz, the same speed used by its older cousin, the Pentium.? The bus is used as a data conduit for "talking" to the rest of the computer system.? Though the Pentium II has design improvements which mitigate the impact of the slow bus, it's ultimately a performance inhibiter, according to analysts.

As previously reported, Intel is expected to increase the bus speed on upcoming systems to 100 MHz by mid-1998. This is important for improving a computer's overall system speed because performance bottlenecks can occur when future 450-MHz Pentium II processors slow down to talk to the bus.

Newer Pentium IIs will also improve system performance by using high-speed cache memory that runs at a faster speed. For example, a 300-MHz processor would communicate with cache memory at 300 MHz, instead of the 150 MHz it does now.? Memory chip performance is also expected to jump.

Where the higher data path speeds and faster processors will offer a significant advantage, Gwenapp says, is for users who access databases frequently, or edit large images in applications, or often manipulate large files. This raises the possibility that some large corporate customers may wait for better performance.

Already, International Data Corporation says that sales of high-end PC servers declined slightly last year as customers postponed purchases as they wait for Intel to release the faster "Deschutes" Pentium II processors.? As part of this new crop of Pentium IIs, some will be available for use in four-processor server systems. Currently, the Pentium II architecture is limited to two-processor configurations.

Nathan Brookwood, a processor market analyst with Dataquest, expects the market for server computers to see a significant upturn because of the large increase in performance future versions of the Pentium II and the faster bus will offer.? However, he doesn't expect a significant number of consumer or corporate desktop users to postpone purchases.?

"In the server space, I would expect to see a giant leap forward in terms of performance," Brookwood says. Because of these improvements, "Intel will start to eat into more of the server business that was being served by RISC platforms from Sun (SUNW) and Digital (DEC).

Intel is an investor in CNET:The Computer Network.