Intel's Prescott makes multimedia play

The chipmaker will release a new desktop chip next month, kicking off what will likely be an intense effort to get computers into the living room.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
8 min read
Intel will release a new desktop chip next month, kicking off what will likely be an intense effort to get computers into the living room.

Prescott, the code name for an enhanced version of the Pentium 4 coming out Feb. 2, will let Intel bridge the gap between the PC and the television by helping computers function more like VCRs than traditional desktops.

The chip itself is tweaked for multimedia, sporting new instructions for handling video and audio files, a larger 1MB cache, and faster chip speeds that will start around 3.4GHz and go to 4GHz later in the year. Security features designed to thwart attacks will also be enabled with an update of Windows XP coming in the second quarter.

A family of chipset code-named Grantsdale, coming later in the spring, will push the entertainment angle further by adding High Definition Audio and give PCs the ability to act like a wireless access hub for other household devices.

"This is a fundamental leap forward in the platform capability. You are going to have better graphics, better audio," said Louis Burns, vice president and general manager of the Desktop Platforms Group at Intel. "If you compare it to the stack of CE (consumer electronics) stuff you are replacing, it is not only attractive in price, it is very attractive."

Prescott at a glance
What is it?
A Pentium 4 chip with improved technology for video streaming and running simultaneous applications. Prescott machines will try to get a seat in the family room.

Technical highlights:
A large (1MB) cache, 13 new multimedia instructions. Speeds range from below 3GHz to 4GHz in 2004. (On the same day, Intel also plans to release a 3.4GHz Extreme Edition Pentium 4 with 2MB of cache based on the older architecture.)

The Grantsdale chipset. This will improve data input/output in a number of ways and allow manufacturers to design smaller, more interesting PCs that also serve as wireless access points. It won't come out till the spring, however.

Not inside:
The chip probably won't do 64-bit applications or be energy efficient, say analysts.

Price wars:
Built on 90-nanometer processes and 300-millimeter wafers, Prescott will be cheap to make. Intel will use pricing to put pressure on AMD.

Live hard, die young:
A successor, Tejas, will appear in about a year.
Manufacturing advances will also mean that processors on the Prescott design will proliferate more quickly across the price spectrum of computers than many predecessors, thereby putting pressure on Advanced Micro Devices.

Despite the advances, Prescott won't likely address two of the hurdles facing Intel: power consumption and 64-bit computing. The chip, Intel's first on the 90-nanometer process, will consume close to 90 watts to 100 watts, and around 40 watts while idle due to leakage and inadvertent power consumption, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. Some notebook chips use less than 40 watts maximum.

Power consumption can put a ceiling on increasing performance over time. Typically, power consumption should decline as chips shrink in size.

"The shrink is not giving them any benefit at comparable frequencies," Brookwood said. "The thermals on Prescott are a bit higher than anyone anticipated."

Instead, these two issues may be handled in Tejas, a redesigned desktop chip slated for mass manufacturing at the end of the year, an unusually rapid transition even if the inevitable delays are included.

Prescott's purpose
Although processor speeds have steadily advanced in the past several years, many of the data paths inside computers lurch forward only occasionally and consequently throttle performance. Prescott and the coming complimentary chipsets like Grantsdale will change that.

PCI Express, for example, will replace the Advanced Graphics Port (AGP) for connecting the processor to the graphics chip. It will later replace the PCI bridge, which connects the processor to peripherals such as cameras. PCI Express has a maximum bandwidth of 8 gigabytes per second. AGP 8X tops out at 2.1 gigabytes per second, and the PCI used in desktops generally peaks at 266 megabytes.

Depending on the computer's configuration, PCI Express will replace both AGP and PCI, one of them, or neither, but largely become the standard over time for both ports.

The design and style of PCs will also change as a result. PCI requires that all data travels in a parallel fashion, a demand that forces engineers to create serpentine connections between different electrical connectors (called pins) on a circuit board so that the pins are electrically equidistant. In PCI Express, parallel delivery disappears. Data travels down a space-saving cable, which in turn allows for smaller boards and PCs.

Serial ATA, a similar connection for hard drives that's already out, will also become far more common in 2004 as Prescott and Grantsdale derivates spread.

"If it looks like a PC, it won't end up in the living room," Mark Vena, director of Dimension products at Dell, said during an interview at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year. "In the next 12 to 24 months, there will be a dramatic shift in design.

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While standard desktops will sport these technologies, the E PC--a computer that resembles a set-top box--will highlight these changes. The E PC is a full-fledged Prescott/Windows XP machine that sits on a TV and serves up music, recorded TV programs, photos and other media files, Intel President Paul Otellini said at CES. Rather than a keyboard, it is operated with a remote.

Gateway and others have licensed the design from Intel and will come out with machines starting around $799 toward the middle of the year.

Intel has also worked to reduce the noise in these systems by designing new impellers--the blades on fans--and reorganizing the way parts are placed inside the PC chassis to improve air flow, Burns said.

Other chipset changes include DDR 2 memory, which delivers data at a higher rate than current 400MHz DDR memory, and High Definition Audio. Some Grantsdale chipsets will come with an enhanced integrated graphics chip that will rival much of the technology on the market, Burns said.

"We have an unusual number of interfaces changing," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. "In terms of overall platform there are clearly a lot more dynamics on the interfaces than the processor...Typically, you change one, maybe two things."

Technically speaking, the changes to the actual processor are less dramatic. Besides the 13 new instructions, the chip will sport an improved version of HyperThreading, which lets a processor run two tasks simultaneously. Taken together, these features could make it easier to decompress video or run virus scans in the background.

Manufacturing milestone
The chip will spread rapidly thanks in part to manufacturing investments made during the downturn. The chip is Intel's first to be produced on wafers with 300-millimeter diameters, which have more than twice the surface area of the 200-millimeter wafers. Larger wafers mean more chips can be manufactured simultaneously, leading directly to larger volumes and lower prices.

Also, Prescott will be the first chip to be made on Intel's 90-nanometer process, which means they will be smaller than chips that contain features measuring 130-nanometers on average (A nanometer is a billionth of a meter). Prescott will have a surface area of 112 square millimeters, compared with about 140 square millimeters on current Pentium 4s.

Taken together, 300-millimeter/90-nanometer manufacturing will cut costs by around 30 percent, according to Intel estimates, although much of the savings will likely only be realized over time. It is risky, though. Typically, Intel introduces new chips on old manufacturing processes, and begins new processes on existing, lower-volume notebook chips, not all of these changes at once.

The efficiencies will be reflected in prices. Although the first high-end Prescotts will debut in the $600 range like Pentium 4s, Intel will cut prices soon after to put the 3.4GHz chip in the $400 range and top off the line with a 3.6GHz version around $600, sources said. Rapid escalation of speed will be facilitated through a longer pipeline.

By the second quarter, Prescott will make up half of Intel's chips shipped to the performance segment and a substantial portion of the "value segment," Otellini said recently. Celeron versions of Prescott will follow closely, while a server version will hit in the second quarter, allowing the architecture to spread to more markets.

Rival AMD won't release 90-nanometer chips until the second half, giving Intel a temporary advantage on this front. AMD's current desktop chip takes up 193 square millimeters of space, which is relatively large. Although Athlon chips will shrink in the second half to close to the same size, AMD won't start 300-millimeter manufacturing until 2006.

AMD, however, will have something Intel likely won't: the ability to run 64-bit software on desktops. Intel will not discuss 64-bit capabilities, but most analysts say the capabilities won't be included. One analyst noted that there is very little discussion of the issue in Taiwan, where the world's motherboards and PC parts come from.

In many ways, 64-bit chips, which let PC makers cram more than 4GB of memory into PCs, are a bit ahead of their time. Although some game developers will come out with 64-bit applications in March, a 64-bit version of Microsoft's Windows that lets users take advantage of these features won't be released until the end of the year.

Big PC makers also won't want to pack 4GB or more worth of memory into their machines anytime soon. Memory doubles in PCs every 18 months or so, said John Morris, director of marketing at AMD. Current top-end desktops contain 1GB of memory. The 4GB ceiling, therefore, won't likely be reached until 2006.

Nonetheless, high-end users--who are influential in word-of-mouth marketing--have latched onto the concept. Buying 64-bit PCs now can also future-proof users, AMD executives and many analysts said. As a result, "Intel isn?t turning such a blind eye to 64 bits on the desktop. They have to do something," said Mark Margevicius, an analyst at Gartner.

Although Intel has said it may not get into 64-bit chips until toward the end of the decade, Margevicius and others say the features may arrive with Tejas in late 2004/early 2005 or its successor. Most analysts, however, admit to having virtually no hard evidence as to Intel's plans in this regard.

Several of the energy consumption technologies from the energy efficient Pentium M notebook chip line could be incorporated by then, Brookwood said.