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Pentium III OK now, gets better later

The Pentium III processor went on sale last week, and the one you may want to buy comes out in September.

The Pentium III processor went on sale last week, and the one you may want to buy comes out in September.

While Intel's latest processor will improve the quality of video, audio, and multimedia on PCs through its new "SIMD" processor instructions, some analysts and observers believe that the premier benefit of upgrading to a Pentium III machine won't appear for seven months.

By then, Intel will be shipping a new version of the Pentium III, code-named Coppermine, which will run at 600 MHz and contain new architectural improvements that boost performance.

The company will also come out with its "Camino" chipset. Camino, which was supposed to come out in June, will bring a number of improvements to the PC platform. With it, PCs will be able to run the latest graphics technology and high-speed Rambus memory. The chipset will also come with a random number generator, sources say, that will make electronic commerce more secure.

And if that's not enough, fairly aggressive price cuts are expected.

"Coppermine will clearly be a more attractive product," said Nathan Brookwood, principal at Insight 64, a microprocessor consulting firm. "Unless you have a compelling need for the SIMD instructions, it will behoove you to wait."

Although the "now or later" debate can be applied to nearly every technology buying decision, the particular circumstances of the Pentium III launch put more factors on the delay side than normal.

The existence of Coppermine is generally cited as the main reason to wait. Current Pentium III processors are essentially slightly Pentium II chips with enhanced capabilities for multimedia processing. Coppermine will change the basic architecture of the chip.

Coppermine will replace the 512K secondary cache that sits alongside the processor with an integrated 256K that's integrated. The shift is possible because Coppermine will be one of the first Intel chips made on the more advanced 0.18-micron manufacturing process, which allows Intel to squeeze more transistors onto a single chip.

While smaller, the integrated cache will boost performance approximately 5 to 10 percent, even without speeding up the processor, said Brookwood.

Coppermine will also run at 600 MHz and faster, pointed out Michael Slater, founder of MicroDesign Resources, a speed improvement that could resound well with customers. By contrast, the 450-MHz and 500-MHz clock speeds of the current Pentium IIIs are, relatively speaking, incremental.

Along with speed and performance changes will come better pricing. Intel and rival AMD have been locked in a bruising price war all year, which will continue when AMD brings out its K7 chip by mid-year. By December, this week's 450-MHz and 500-Mhz Pentium III PCs will be in the consumer "sweet spot," selling for between $1,200 to $1,500, said Ashok Kumar, semiconductor analyst for Piper Jaffray.

Finally, the wait won't likely affect most customers all that much. The Pentium III's chief advantage is that it comes with 70 additional instructions and a memory streaming architecture that improves multimedia performance. Applications or Web sites that take advantage of the features are only just coming into play; a number of the software vendors that participated in Intel's launch have said they won't ship their Pentium III goods until the second quarter or later. Thus, the gain in buying now is attenuated.

"If you can wait until aught zero zero [the year 2000], I'm sure some of this technology will make it into Celeron," said Brookwood, referring to Intel's low-price line of processors.

Graphics: another issue
The delay of the Camino chipset, by contrast, deprives users of benefits they could enjoy now.

Camino, officially called the Intel 820 chipset, will improve the platform in a number of ways, according to Intel and others, by enabling PCs to switch from standard SRAM to faster Rambus-style memory for the first time. In addition, the chipset will introduce the latest version of the Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP), a separate graphics data pipeline. AGP 4X, which comes on Camino, will be twice as fast as the AGP bus in use today. Thirdly, Camino will come with a random number generator, which can be used to facilitate e-commerce.

Lastly, Camino speeds up the system bus--the data path between the PC and main memory--from 100 MHz to 133 MHz, an acceleration which can enhance the rate that data is processed. Unfortunately, without Camino, few of these improvements can occur.

While the delay may impinge on consumers, it hurts graphics chip vendors even more, said Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst at MicroDesign Resources. "There will be variants of their graphics chips that will take advantage of AGP 4X in the June time frame but no systems," he said.

Put another way, "They will release CPUs on schedule, but the 4X AGP versions won't have any customers."

Graphic chip vendors are none too happy about the delay. With the delay of Camino, many vendors will likely still release these parts in June, but sell them as AGP 2X solutions, said one executive at a graphics vendor. The problem with that scenario is that AGP 4X parts were expected to sell at a premium. The delay, in other words, arbitrarily swept away a profit opportunity.

A fine time to upgrade
"Frankly, it [Camino] is coming a couple of months later than we wanted," said Paul Otellini, executive vice president and general manager of the Intel Architecture Business Group. Nonetheless, he stated that the delay does not constitute a reason not to upgrade. By buying now, consumers can get a faster computer with multimedia enhancements.

But touting the benefits of an integrated cache is no easy thing with consumers, he noted.

Businesses have even a stronger motive to upgrade, he asserted, as many will freeze their PC configurations by the first half of the year and possibly start to slow down their purchasing in anticipation of the Y2K bug.

Delaying purchases to get definitively better prices or superb technology is also, in the final analysis, a no-win situation, added Mike Feibus, an analyst with Mercury Research. "There's always a better thing around the corner and prices only go one way," he said.

If consumers want Pentium III systems, they might as well buy them, he said.

Some of the benefits slated to come from Camino may begin to appear anyway, he added. Third-party chipset vendors are expected to come out with chipsets with a 133-MHz system bus for the Pentium III that work with ordinary memory. As a result, PCs with the faster bus will be likely available before September.

These solutions could in many was prove superior because they will be built for ordinary SDRAM, a known commodity. Camino is mostly designed for Rambus-style memory. While much faster, Rambus memory remains an unknown commodity and will be more expensive.

Nonetheless, he agreed that the shift to 0.18-micron manufacturing will result in a 5 to 10 percent performance improvement above and beyond clock speed improvements.