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Mac speed factor: Exponential

Macworld Expo Apple Computer said it will introduce a 500-MHz Macintosh later this year based on a chip from Exponential.

Macworld Expo SAN FRANCISCO--Apple Computer (AAPL) will raise the stakes in the performance battle with nemesis Intel later this year by introducing a 500-MHz Macintosh.

The system was previewed during Apple CEO Gil Amelio's keynote address at Macworld Expo.

As previously reported by CNET, the system will use a processor from Exponential Technology, a company that rose from obscurity to make headlines last year when it announced plans to manufacture a 500-MHz chip.

Apple is in fact a major investor in Exponential and the two have been doing joint development work on the chip, dubbed the X704. Exponential is planning to ship its X704 processors in the second quarter running at 466-, 500-, and 533-MHz.

Apple plans to introduce the system before the end of the year. Mac clone vendors such as Power Computing could ship systems based on the chip even earlier than that, according to sources.

Exponential and Apple already have very basic prototype systems using the X704 processor.

"They took an Apple [PowerPC] 604e based system, pulled out the 604e card, plugged in the X704 card, and attached a big fan," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at marketing research firm Dataquest.

But while power users always appreciate any performance enhancements, Brookwood says the sky-high 500-MHz clock speed of the X704 chip may be a little overrated--at least in the systems which he has seen. "The X704 runs only about 30 percent faster than a 240-MHz 604e PowerPC processor which itself is slightly faster than a 200-MHz Pentium Pro processor," he said.

Brookwood says one of the problems is that all this processing power is more or less confined to the special circuit board that contains the X704 chip. If the processor needs to go out to the system to get data, then processing can slow down significantly, said Brookwood.

Apple is working, however, on a special design to better take advantage of the raw power of the X704 chips.

Exponential says they have already tested X704 chips in Apple's Power Mac 9500 boxes and that 7500 and 7800 models are also candidates for X704 processors.

The PowerPC 604e is the fastest PowerPC processor available from IBM and Motorola.

The 200-MHz Pentium Pro is the fastest processor currently available from Intel, but the company is expected to bring out a next-generation P6 Klamath processor running at 233- and 266-MHz in the second quarter, as well as an even faster version of Klamath called Deschutes late in the year.

Brookwood said that the X704 should perform better than a Klamath on engineering and scientific applications based on the X704's high "floating point" processing performance.