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Intel's copper chip plans emerge

Shortly after it moves to a 64-bit architecture in 2000, the chip giant will likely switch over to a copper chip design.

Shortly after Intel moves to its 64-bit chip architecture in the year 2000, the chip giant is expected to switch over to a copper chip design, following on the heels of such rivals as IBM.

The transition will likely come as Intel moves to the second generation of its 64-bit "IA-64" architecture, according to sources familiar with the company's plans. Copper, which conducts better than the aluminum circuits found in current chips, is expected to lead to faster processors.

In development for more than four years, the IA-64 architecture is Intel's initial attempt to enter the lucrative market for 64-bit chips, which control the powerful "back-end" servers used as control centers for banks, airports, and other computing-intensive enterprises. Merced will be the first of these 64-bit chips, followed by a chip code-named McKinley.

McKinley will significantly improve upon Merced, according to Intel, owing to some fundamental differences in its design.

Analysts expect that McKinley, due in 2001, will be made on the 0.13-micron manufacturing process, two stages better than the current 0.25-micron process. Meanwhile, company spokesman Howard High has stated that the company will only use copper technology with this process: Aluminum will not be employed in 0.13-micron-generation chips.

Merced's successor, he admitted, can be expected around 2001 to 2002, roughly around the time this manufacturing technology comes out, and therefore will "likely" be made using the 0.13-micron process.

Other sources said that there is no guarantee that McKinley will debut on the process, but that the calendar could create the opportunity. Historically, Intel has introduced a new process technology on an existing product, but then quickly moved to use it on more cutting-edge chips. The 0.25-micron process, for instance, came out on Pentium MMX chips for mobile computers first, and was shifted to Pentium II desktop chips a few months later.

In a similar scenario, copper chips might first appear in the mobile or desktop line. McKinley could come out first on the aluminum 0.18-micron process, but then quickly incorporate the new technology.

IBM has already indicated it is moving to copper for its PowerPC processor and is expected to introduce the first chips later this year. Advanced Micro Devices has also indicated that it will move to copper in the year 2000.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.