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Intel to drive home chip-numbering system in May

The chipmaker will borrow from BMW's playbook when it comes to assigning a new classification system to processors.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
4 min read
In a move that will change how millions of consumers buy their PCs, Intel later this year will adopt a new system for differentiating its processors that de-emphasizes the widely used gigahertz, or clock speed.

Sources familiar with Intel's plans said that the chipmaker in May will begin affixing each of its new processors with a number designed to help consumers decipher how the features stack up against other processors in the same family. Intel will use numbers in the ranges of 300, 500 and 700, similar to the model numbers BMW uses on its sedans.


What's new:
Intel later this year will adopt a new system for differentiating its processors that de-emphasizes the widely used gigahertz, or clock speed.

Bottom line:
With more than 80 percent of the market for PC processors, any changes Intel makes to marketing its chips will affect PC makers, retailers and consumers. AMD made a similar change more than two years ago.

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As previously reported, Intel intends that the new system will help consumers better evaluate a processor's mains attributes, including clock speed, cache size and bus speed.

The new system is a dramatic change in Intel's marketing approach because it takes emphasis away from using clock speed as a main measure of performance. Instead, the system will strive to create a scenario in which a person choosing between several 300 series chips, for example, equates the decision to an exercise in choosing a good, better or best processor, sources familiar with the plan said.

"The need for a metric that's beyond clock speed is becoming increasingly evident," said Dean McCarron, an analyst with Mercury Research.

While McCarron said he couldn't comment specifically on the Intel strategy, he agreed that a new way of depicting a processor's performance is necessary given the general direction in which the chips are headed.

Future desktop PC chips, for example, could include two or more processor cores. The extra processor core would basically double the performance of a processor, but a person buying only on clock speed might miss that enhancement, he said.

Intel representatives declined to comment.

Currently, when shopping for a desktop PC with an Intel processor, a consumer might see several versions of the company's Celeron or Pentium 4 processors, with clock speeds ranging from 2.2GHz to 3.4GHz. Assigning each chip a number would presumably help buyers narrow choices and also make better sense of cache and bus speeds. The two features influence performance of a processor by holding a pool of data close to the processor core and by speeding the flow of data into and out of the processor, respectively.

Because of its dominance in the PC market, any changes Intel makes to marketing its processors will impact PC makers, retailers and consumers. Intel has about 83 percent of the market for PC processor market, compared with about 15 percent for rival AMD, according to Mercury Research.

Intel is expected to launch the new number system during the week of May 10, sources familiar with the plans said. The introduction will coincide with another major product change scheduled for this summer: the delayed launch of Intel's newest Pentium M chip for notebooks, otherwise known as Dothan. Dothan is a higher-performance version of the Pentium M notebook chip and is manufactured using Intel's 90-nanometer process.

Intel's plan is that mostly its newer, 90-nanometer chips will be given the new model numbers. Existing chips, such as the Pentium M, will continue to be labeled with only a clock speed number, the sources said.

Intel's Dothan Pentium M chips will be grouped inside the 700 series, the sources said. Its 500 series will include both desktop and mobile Pentium 4 chips, and its 300 series will include desktop and mobile Celeron chips.

The company is most likely to label each chip with its family name, such as Pentium M, first. Its processor number, such as 700, will follow.

Then Intel will list clock speed, cache size, bus speed and other features that impact performance. A chip with even only one different feature, such as a slower or faster bus speed than others, would likely get a different number in order to set it apart, the sources said.

That approach could help sort Intel's different chips. Right now Intel often uses only a single letter to show the difference between two chips with the same clock speed, even if all of their other features are completely different. It's latest Pentium 4 processors, which may have different manufacturing processes and cache sizes, for example, are often only set apart by a single letter E.

Some may wonder why Intel waited so long to make the switch. Intel rival AMD went the same route more than two years ago with the launch of its Athlon XP chip. It continued the practice with its Athlon 64 chip, launched last year.

The chips' four-digit model numbers, such as 3200+, provide a measure of their overall performance, versus their clock speeds, which are currently around 2GHz to 2.4GHz.