Upgrading won't be difficult, according to Ming Chok, vice president of technology at Soyo, a company that makes the main circuit boards which house the processor. Consumers who want to replace a Pentium II with a Pentium III (or a Pentium II Xeon for a Pentium III Xeon) probably won't have to change their "motherboards" or their chipsets.
Users will have to update the PC's BIOS, but the software will be available on the web, Chok said.
"You can just put a Katmai into a PII motherboard. It's no problem," he said, referring to the upcoming chip's code name.
An Intel spokeswoman confirmed the Pentium III's componentry would be similar to the Pentium II's.
After it emerges in late February or early March, the Pentium III will become Intel's mainstream processor. The new chip will contain 70 additional multimedia instructions and run at faster speeds than current Pentium IIs.
Both chips are built around the same processor "core." Additionally, Pentium IIIs will initially come in the "Slot 1" and "Slot 2" packages found on current Pentium II and Xeon chips, respectively, although new package designs will emerge later in 1999. Intel uses a "Slot" cartridge to house processors on the motherboard.
The first Pentium IIIs will also use the same 100-MHz system bus found on many Pentium IIs. The bus is the principal data pathway between the chip and the rest of the computer.
Pleasing PC makers
While the easy transition will benefit consumers, PC vendors may be still more pleased. Because the chips are roughly the same from a design standpoint, manufacturers are not going to have to rearchitect their systems to accommodate the new chip. Pentium III-based computers are therefore likely to be available upon the chip's launch.
This is important because Intel is pursuing a relatively fast transition to the Pentium III. No new versions of the Pentium II will come out once Pentium III emerges, said Greg Welch, brand manager for Pentium III. Pentium III will also come to the notebook line by the second half.
An Intel spokeswoman confirmed that the Pentium III will use the 440BX chipset, which currently goes with the Pentium II, and fit into standard Pentium II motherboards. Similarly, the Pentium III Xeon will use the 440GX chipset, which goes with current Pentium II Xeons. But she recommended that users contact their computer makers about the BIOS upgrade.
Design changes will be needed in the future, said Chok and others.
Intel is slated to upgrade the system bus on the Pentium III from the current 100-MHz clock speed to 133 MHz in the second half of the year. This will require a new chipset as well as additional motherboard testing, Chok said. A number of Pentium II systems use an older chipset with a 66-MHz bus, which would have to be changed in an upgrade.
Intel is also scheduled to come out with a faster version of its Advanced Graphics Port (AGP), which will require new motherboard.
Also in the future, Intel will change the slot packaging to cut costs, according to Paul Otellini, executive vice president of the Intel architecture business group. New "form factors" for Pentium III chips should emerge during the "peak selling season" of 1999, he told analysts during the Intel financial conference call yesterday.
Additionally, future Pentium III chips will have integrated secondary cache memory, which may change how the chips connect to PCs. In all, these new forms will probably make future chips incompatible with current Pentium II motherboards.
Simplification between chip generations will likely continue in other ways. Last year, Intel began trying to reduce the number of peripheral technological changes between chip generations, Otellini said, reversing past practice.
Having new chipsets and motherboards for each new chip generation not only added costs to PC makers' bottom lines, but handling the transition also meant additional costs for customers.
Large businesses qualify, or pre-test, systems before they buy them. The qualification process can take up to six months, according to Michael Takemura, North American desktop marketing manager at Compaq, and a change in chipsets typically prompts a re-qualification. As a result, business customers were often faced with the choice of spending on more qualification or postponing an upgrade.
Otellini said that Intel's goal is to develop chipsets that last over two generations of processors. "They [PC makers] are saying, 'Give me a platform that is not going to change,'" he said in announcing the change in November.