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Intel chips take a new number

The chip giant plans to give its PC chips model numbers that reflect their performance and de-emphasize their clock speeds--a huge marketing shift for Intel that might pay off for Pentium M.

Intel plans to assign a new numbering system to its Pentium and Celeron processors in order to better illustrate their performance to consumers, according to a source familiar with the company's plans.

The chip giant is expected to begin the practice with the launch of its latest Pentium M processor, dubbed Dothan, which is due in the second quarter. Pentium 4 and Celeron chips will also get model numbers, as Intel aims to get the system in place by summer, the source said.

Under the model number system, processors will be given numbers to describe their performance, in addition to being described as running at 2GHz or another speed.

The planned system, which would focus on the chips' overall performance and de-emphasize how fast its chips run, is a huge change for Intel's marketing machine. The company has spent years and millions of dollars marketing clock speed as its processors' main measure of performance and their main point of differentiation from competing Advanced Micro Devices products.

Times change, though. Intel's PC processor line has grown in complexity and in variety since the late 1990s. Under the model number plan, each chip's clock speed will become one of several features--including cache size and bus speed--that go into summing up performance. The system is designed to help consumers compare chips on a "good," "better" and "best" basis, the source said.

An Intel representative declined to comment for this story.

Intel rival AMD may have helped pave the way for consumers' acceptance of model numbers. Although previous attempts to do so by companies such as Cyrix failed, AMD successfully switched its Athlon chip to a model number system more than two years ago.

Under Intel's number system, the difference between two chips in the same family would be more clearly marked out. For example, within the Pentium 4 family, it would be easier to distinguish the capabilities of an older Northwood-design 2.6GHz Pentium 4 chip with 512KB of cache and a 533MHz bus, compared with a newer Prescott 2.8GHz chip with 1MB of cache and an 800MHz bus. (The cache holds data near the processor core to improve performance, so its size is an important consideration. Meanwhile, the bus provides a bridge for data to flow over into and out of the processor, so its speed is also important.)

The same would hold for differentiating between Pentium Ms--between an older Banias and a newer Dothan, say--and for the Celeron chip. The Celeron, designed for low-price PCs, is expected to get a boost in speed next quarter, which should be reflected in the new model system.

The numbering system will apply to all of Intel's different PC processor brands, except, at first, Pentium 4 Extreme Edition. But Intel intends the ratings to be used only to compare chips within a line, but not to compare different families of processors, according to the source.

The rating system might help Intel tackle a problem in how buyers perceive its Pentium M chips. Even though the company has run extensive advertising for the mobile chip and the Centrino package that includes it since last year, some consumers have had a difficult time getting past the fact that the Pentium M appears slower than desktop Pentiums in clock speed.

The Pentium M ranges in speed from 1.4GHz to 1.7GHz, while the Pentium 4 comes in a range from 2.4GHz to 3.4GHz. During the year the Pentium M has been on the market, most consumers have continued to buy notebooks with Pentium 4 chips, rather than with the mobile Pentiums. Some people simply balk at spending the same or more on a notebook with a slower chip, PC makers have said. Thus the Pentium 4, a less ideal notebook chip, has outsold the Pentium M at retail.

However, because the new system takes some emphasis away from clock speed, consumers may eventually take a different view of the mobile processor.

AMD switched to a model-numbering scheme in late 2001. The model numbers developed for its Athlon XP, such as 2500+ or 3000+, reflect the each chip's performance compared with older chips in the Athlon family, the company has said. AMD uses similar numbers for its newer Athlon 64 range, which has a a 3400+ model that runs at 2.2GHz and has 1MB of cache.