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Intel eyes 500-MHz chips

The chip giant plans to move quickly to 0.18-micron technology to pack more processing power into less chip real estate.

In a break with past practice, Intel plans to move quickly to manufacturing technology that will allow it to pack more processing power into less chip real estate, eyeing 500-MHz chips next year, Intel CEO Craig Barrett said today.

Processor technology generations, which used to last two to three years, will start to get shorter as companies try to devise ways to save on research and development costs, Barrett said at a meeting for Intel analysts this morning in New York. This likely will mean a more rapid transition to advanced processors than seen in the past, at least for high-end machines.

It also means semiconductor companies will have to find ways to minimize products' abrupt shifts from mass-market usage to steep decline, Barrett added.

To moderate these swings, processor makers are going to have to adjust their manufacturing techniques. One solution is moving more quickly to the next generation of chips, which would cut down on the cost of an ongoing changeover.

Intel is in fact already making such a shift, he noted. Processors made under the next-generation 0.18-micron manufacturing technology will appear by midyear next year, faster than was stated on earlier product calendars. The company now is moving from the older 0.35-micron production to the 0.25-micron process.

"We're looking to ramp up 0.18-micron technology in mid-1999 to minimize the amount of 0.25-micron [production technology] we have put in place," Barrett elaborated.

Basically, the smaller a production process gets, the more transistors can be packed closer together--resulting in smaller, faster chips that use less power.

While he did not identify the first products that will be manufactured according to the 0.18-micron process, the likely candidate is chips for mobile computers. Portables are often used to introduce new process technologies, Barrett pointed out, because these computers can take advantage of the lower power and smaller size of more advanced chips.

Also, mid-1999 will be in advance of the release of Merced, Intel's first 64-bit processor. Merced is primarily intended for servers and high-end workstations.

Interestingly, if the 0.18-micron process shift takes place in mid-1999 as stated, the life span of the 0.25-micron process technology as a cutting-edge technology will be relatively short. Intel released its first 0.25 chips only last September.

Barrett also used the occasion to outline Intel's short-term product plan. In the first part of 1999, Intel will release a 500-MHz processor for servers and workstations. These chips will also come with the Katmai MMX instructions, a new series of MMX processor instructions that will enhance multimedia processing.

Both features will be part of performance desktop PCs in the first half of 1999, he said.

Mobile processors, meanwhile, will graduate to 333 MHz. For Basic PCs, Intel's designation for low-cost systems, Barrett promised increased integration of high-speed "cache" memory and faster speed grades. These speed boosts will increasingly serve to cut costs on overall designs because the faster chips will be capable of running audio, video, and modem functions on software. In other words, separate chips will not be necessary, he added.

Each segment will also come with a different chipset--critical silicon that works in tandem with the main processor. The Basic PC segment, for instance, will have a chipset with higher level of feature integration. Server chipsets, meanwhile, will allow for eight-way multiprocessing. Workstation chipsets will only allow for two-way multiprocessing.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.