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What does Pentium III bring to the party?

Intel's new chip offers users benefits over the Pentium II, but not the earth-shattering sort of changes, at least not initially, that one might expect.

As Intel and PC makers prepare for their biggest product introduction for the year, the old mantra of "where's the beef?" may be finding new resonance.

The Pentium III chip, which will be previewed at the San Jose Convention Center on Wednesday and officially released in systems on February 26, offers users benefits over the Pentium II, including an ID feature, but not the earth-shattering sort of changes, at least not initially, that one might expect.

The Pentium III will be faster than the Pentium II, and soon feature additional architectural innovations that will boost performance. But one of the main reasons to buy a Pentium III that computer makers will tout--a series of 70 new multimedia instructions--won't really have much of an effect on the user experience. Benefits from the new "Katmai" instructions won't become apparent until software vendors adopt them, and that is a process that will take time.

Analysts point to the recent history of Intel?s much-hyped MMX instructions as reason to doubt their efficacy. ?Software developers have rewritten relatively few programs to take advantage of [Intel?s new technology],? said Ashok Kumar, an analyst at Piper Jaffray in Minneapolis, Minn.

The hype, however, will be deafening. Not only will Intel launch a worldwide ad campaign, PC makers of every ilk will be announcing new models and upgrades for the Pentium III. Many of these machines will be priced in the $2,000 to $2,500 range. Some of the more salient examples include:

  • Hewlett-Packard (HP) is preparing a new high-end Internet-centric PC consumer model in its popular Pavilion line which uses a 500-MHz version of the chip, according to sources familiar with the rollout. HP will also completely revamp it Vectra line of business PCs with the chip.

  • Dell Computer will come out with Dimension and Optiplex PCs using both the 450- and 500-MHz Pentium III chips, according to industry sources.

  • Compaq is expected to add the Pentium III to its Presario 5680 series of feature-laden consumer PCs. This is one of the few consumer PCs to come standard with a digital subscriber line modem.

  • IBM will have both new models and upgrades for its Aptiva line of consumer PCs.

  • Gateway, Micron, and others are expected to roll out new models.

    History weighs heavy
    "I think you can assume that people will see the benefit later on when the applications come out," said Mark Edelstone, semiconductor analyst with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, adding though that Intel is a little bit further along this time than it was with MMX.

    A recent editorial in the Microprocessor Report also questioned the chip's performance advantages over the current Pentium II. The Pentium III, after all, is built around the same processor core. The instructions are the most fundamental change.

    Nevertheless, Intel's marketing machine will likely prevail. "I think Intel will be successful with the campaign because people will want the [Katmai] technology whether they know about it or not. Much like MMX," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64.

    Intel says that there will be over 200 games and software programs ready to take advantage of the Pentium III's new "Katmai" instructions at launch. "I remain skeptical," said Kumar. Relying on APIs is not enough for maximum performance," he added.

    Applications that use video and audio streaming over the Internet will benefit.

    Big upside for the high end
    Other analysts see a definite upside for high-end consumer users, one of the big market segments the chip is aimed at initially.

    "For gamers, it's a big deal and seems like Intel has quite a lot of support behind [the new Katmai technology]. We should see a big jump in 3D performance this year," said Martin Reynolds, an analyst at the Gartner Group.

    "For business users, not so much of a difference [in performance]," he added.

    But later there will be "an ongoing increase--in clock speed. I would say that 800 MHz is on the cards for the end of this year," he added. The clock speed, or megahertz rating, is the most oft-used benchmark for a chip's performance.

    The new Katmai instructions will also likely be slightly superior to AMD's similar 3DNow extensions, said Edelstone. "Katmai probably goes further. It addresses more aspects," he said, "but there's no doubt that 3DNow has been successful."

    Resellers who have tested the chip seem satisfied. The 500-MHz Pentium III is close in performance to current 400-MHz Xeon processors for server and workstation applications, especially in number-crunching applications, according to Roland Baker, president of Net Express, a Silicon Valley reseller and workstation manufacturer. "This is important for the scientific community."

    Still, doubts persist. "You go into a computer store and see all this stuff [advertising] about MMX and 3Dnow [AMD's technology], but it doesn't really do anything for most people," said Danny Lam, a principal with Fisher-Holstein, a consulting firm.

    "Increasing the amount of memory from 32 megabytes to 96, or more, can do much more for the average user," he added.

    But suppliers of corporate computers, such HP's Vectra PC division, are encouraged by features such as the ID number, a first for Intel processors. (See related article.)

    "This will become more important over time as applications that take advantage of it appear," said Achin Kuttler, a manager in HP's Vectra division.

    "The ID feature will come disabled but if a user wants to use it to track assets, they can enable it themselves," he said.

    Kuttler is also keen on the ease of transitioning from Pentium II computers to those using the Pentium III. Because of a new level of compatibility between the two generations of chips--which is unprecedented. New generations of chips can wreak havoc as corporations scramble to evaluate new systems that are not compatible with the current installation of computers.

    "Migration will be fast. It could cut evaluation time by 75 percent," Kuttler said.

    Additional performance boosts
    Bigger enhancements to the Pentium III will come later this year when Intel switches to a more advanced manufacturing process and makes the onboard cache memory design faster, which should result in relatively large jumps in performance over the Pentium II, according to analysts.

    The Pentium III comes out a 450-MHz and 500-MHz and will continue to get faster from there. Pentium III chips will get a boost when Intel integrates the secondary cache into the processor. A cache of 256KB will be integrated into the same piece of silicon as the chip when Intel advances to the 0.18-micron manufacturing process in the middle of the year. Current Pentium II chips contain 512KB of secondary cache, but it sits along side the processor on separate silicon connected by bus, or data path.

    Although half the size of the current cache on the Pentium II, the integrated cache will be twice as fast, giving an overall performance boost.