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Chip paths diverge at Intel

Desktop and notebook processors will start to go their separate ways with the introduction of two new chip families that Intel will tout this week at its Developer Forum.

Chips in desktops and notebooks will start to go their separate ways in 2003 with the introduction of two new processor families that Intel will tout this week at its Developer Forum.

During the four-day conference in San Jose, Calif., the company will provide further details on Prescott, a successor to the Pentium 4, coming later this year, as well as the Pentium-M, a new type of notebook chip debuting March 12.

Additionally, the company will shed light on upcoming Itanium and Xeon chips for servers, various wireless projects, and the "corporate stable platform," a new technique that will allow corporate buyers to buy new PCs with the latest processors without having to go through the expense and hassle of altering the uniform software image that gets burned onto every company PC, said Pat Gelsinger, Intel's chief technology officer.

"The strategy in effect is to stabilize the software but advancing the hardware underneath," he said.

Also this week, rival Advanced Micro Devices will hold briefings on its Opteron family of chips, while Nvidia, Rambus and others will unveil product plans at the convention or in nearby hotel suites.

Prescott and the Pentium-M--formerly known as Banias--will mark an evolutionary breaking point. Right now, Intel desktop and notebook chips come with slightly different capabilities, but derive from the same basic design.

By contrast, the Pentium-M will feature a distinct design geared toward reducing power consumption and will be optimized to run in wireless computers. Intel, in fact, will begin to tout how the chip and companion wireless components have been certified to work with networking gear from Cisco Systems, according to sources. By the end of 2003, the Pentium-M will become the predominant notebook chip from Intel, according to Don MacDonald, director of mobile platforms at Intel.

Desktop chip Prescott, meanwhile, will sport LaGrande, a security technology that prevents outsiders from sniffing a hard drive, and hyperthreading, an inheritance from the Pentium 4 that lets a single chip behave to some degree like two. Pentium-M, for now, will have neither feature.

Some technologies developed for one family will migrate to others, but divergence will be increasingly apparent, Intel executives have said.

The Pentium-M will debut at speeds ranging from 900MHz to 1.6GHz, slower than Prescott, which will likely hit 3.5GHz or higher, according to sources.

Other expected highlights of the conference include the following:

• Chipsets: Intel will discuss Springdale chipsets coming in March. These chipsets will raise the bus speed of the Pentium 4 from 400MHz to 800MHz, boosting overall performance, as well as allow PC makers to cheaply adopt Serial ATA, a high-speed method for connecting hard drives.

Springdale, and an accompanying 3.2GHz Pentium 4, will also pave acceptance for hyperthreading in the corporate world. IBM and Dell Computer now ship Pentium 4s with hyperthreading off, but will switch with Springdale, Intel representatives have said.

• Servers: More details will emerge on Madison, a 1.5GHz version of Itanium coming this summer; Deerfield, an energy-efficient Itanium processor for blade servers; and Montecito, a version of Itanium coming in 2005 that will have two processing cores, 18MB of level three cache, and a billion transistors.

• Manufacturing: Chips using the 90-nanometer process will start to emerge in the second half of the year. These chips will contain smaller transistors and run at higher clock speeds than chips made on the 130-nanometer process. Additionally, they will contain "strained silicon," a layer of silicon germanium for extra performance.

Prescott and Dothan, a 90-nanometer version of Banias, will be two of the first chips made on the 90-nanometer process.

Researchers will also likely discuss how they have successfully completed masks--templates for laying down circuits--for 65-nanometer manufacturing, which will begin in 2005. Making a mask, which costs millions and involves extensive research and testing, is a crucial step.

• Wireless and networking: There will be updates on mesh networks, which allow users to hop across different networks wirelessly, and ultrawideband technology. Intel will also likely release chips for the telecommunications and networking equipment market.

• Cellular: Manitoba, Intel's first microprocessor targeted at cell phones, will be on display. The company, meanwhile, will discuss plans on future Xscale processors and efficient ways for packing more flash memory into portable devices cheaply.

• New technologies: On the final day of the conference, Gelsinger will outline different experiments Intel is conducting in location-based computing, or software that "knows" where an individual is by data culled from his or her past behavior, as well as in the life sciences area.

Like STMicroelectronics, Intel has designed a silicon chip that can be used to test DNA samples from bodily fluids, the same sort of thing that now requires lab equipment.

Intel is still tinkering with the potentially lucrative technology behind many of these futuristic projects as well as how to approach them as a business. The company may eventually make some of these devices or merely license the technology, Gelsinger said.

"Some of the manufacturability and packaging issues of MEMS (microelectromechanical systems), or machines made on silicon, (another Intel research project), is not well solved yet," he said.