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Intel takes slow road to 64-bit PC chips

Although AMD and Apple are hot on the trail of 64-bit chips for desktops, Intel won't go down that path for years, say top researchers at the company.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Advanced Micro Devices and Apple Computer will likely tout that they can deliver 64-bit computing to desktops this year, but Intel is in no hurry.

Two of the company's top researchers said that a lack of applications, existing circumstances in the memory market, and the inherent challenges in getting the industry and consumers to migrate to new chips will likely keep Intel from coming out with a 64-bit chip--similar to those found in high-end servers and workstations--for PCs for years.

"It could be the end of the decade" before mainstream desktops need more than 4GB of memory, one of the chief reasons to move to 64-bit chips, Justin Rattner, a senior fellow at Intel, said during an interview at the Intel Developer Forum taking place here this week.

Rattner's comments echoed statements from Intel President Paul Otellini, who said in an interview last year that Intel may not be compelled to produce a 64-bit desktop chip until 2008 or even 2009.

Intel, though, will examine ways that will allow the company's desktop line to take on some of the attributes of 64-bit chips.

Currently, desktop and notebook processors like the Pentium 4 are 32-bit chips, meaning that they process data in 32-bit chunks; 64-bit chips can process data in 64-bit chunks.

Among other benefits, 64-bit chips let computer makers put more than 4GB of memory into computers, the current ceiling for 32-bit systems. More memory lets a computer run more ornate applications such as complex databases or graphically intense software.

AMD's Athlon64 chip, coming in September, will function as a 32- or 64-bit chip, depending on the software loaded onto the machine. IBM's PowerPC 970 will do the same thing. The chip comes out later this year, and Apple is expected to adopt it.

Intel has a 64-bit chip family, the Itanium line, but sells the chips into servers that typically cost more than $10,000. Itanium chips do not run regular 32-bit applications well, and instead generally require software written for the chip family.

Despite the advantages, converting a 32-bit machine into a 64-bit one isn't easy. Four separate design teams at Intel examined how the company could take one of its 32-bit chips and transform it into a 64-bit machine, said Richard Wirt, another senior fellow at Intel. After running simulations, all four teams concluded that such a transition wouldn't be economically feasible, he said.

Another problem lies in the software. Windows software is designed to run on 32-bit systems. Transforming it to a 64-bit level will require an intense amount of work that few, right now, seem willing to tackle, Rattner said. One of the unpleasant surprises with Itanium, he added, has been that it has taken a number of years to get the software base developed.

"We arrived with our 64-bit processor to learn that the databases have not yet arrived," Rattner said. Itanium's commercial acceptance initially was hampered because, until recently, "there hasn't been much OS support."

The ability for PC makers to put more than 4GB of memory into desktops is also somewhat overstated, Rattner said.

More memory
Increasing the amount of memory in PCs in the future will depend on the ability of memory manufacturers to reduce the cost of memory chips. Generally, memory chips get cheaper by shrinking the size of the memory cells, the circuits on the chips that hold data. That's no longer easy.

"It's getting harder to make DRAM cells smaller when the crossover (to putting 4GB of memories in PCs) is not 100 percent certain," Rattner said. "It is a ways off."

A slowdown in turn would likely put a ceiling on the amount of memory that goes into mainstream machines. Typically, PC makers won't spend more than 8 percent of their costs on memory, according to memory and computer executives. Most desktops today come with around 256MB or 512MB of memory. A select few come with 1GB.

Analysts' predictions generally follow Rattner's projection. By 2005, mainstream systems at the time will contain only 1GB of memory, according to Gartner, while most high-end systems will contain only 2.5GB.

"The software just isn't there," added Sherry Garber, an analyst at Semico Research, who added that mainstream systems may not come with 1GB until 2007.

AMD executives disagree, saying that consumers and developers will want the additional memory once a chip exists that will make it easy to buy. High-end consumers may even need the added memory in some circumstances because of the way applications will develop by 2004, the company has asserted. History also shows that memory prices can go down far faster than predictions.

Game developers have said that 4GB computers could become popular rapidly, especially with online gaming. Nonetheless, AMD executives acknowledge that the price is a bit high right now. 4GB costs about $1,000, or more than most computers.

Although dismissive of the need to shift, Intel is examining ways in which some of the advantages of 64-bit computing could come to the desktop. One avenue of exploration could involve improving the way Itanium chips run 32-bit software, Wirt said.

Currently, Itanium chips do not run regular Windows code well. If this function could be improved, however, Intel hypothetically could begin to make energy-efficient versions of Itanium for desktops, Wirt said.

Another technique for expanding the memory capacity of current 32-bit chips is through physical memory addressing, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst of Mercury Research. This involves altering the chipset so that 32-bit chips could handle longer memory addresses. Intel has in fact already done preliminary work that would let its PC chips handle 40-bit addressing, which would let PCs hold more than 512GB of memory, according to papers published by the company.

"This is trivial to implement. It would probably take an engineer a week," McCarron said. Nonetheless, "they would have to get Microsoft and the application guys to cooperate."

Another technique would be simply putting two processors into high-end machines.

"There are a number of actions that don't necessarily require them to come out with a 64-bit chip," McCarron added. However, "if AMD gains traction, they will have to respond."