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Cyrix shoots for 300 MHz

The chipmaker will release a faster version of its premier desktop processor while debuting a new brand name for the chip.

Following closely on the heels of rival AMD, Cyrix will release a version of its premier desktop processor tomorrow running at what the company claims is equivalent to a 300 MHz chip, while debuting a new brand name for the chip.

The M II is Cyrix's answer to the recently released 300-MHz K6 processor from AMD and the upcoming Celeron processor to be released Wednesday by Intel.

The chip, which will be released in quantities later this month, will be positioned as a low-cost yet powerful processor for the cheap computing segment, said Stan Swearingen, senior director of product marketing at National Semiconductor (NSM-AL), which owns Cyrix.

Cyrix will follow the release of this first M II with chips rated at performance levels of 333 MHz, 350 MHz, and 400 MHz later in the year. (The company grades its chips according to a performance rating. Actual megahertz speeds are lower.)

While the first chips will be made on an older 0.35-micron production process, the M II family will be moved to the advanced 0.25-micron process, which will result in smaller, cheaper processors. These chips will support a 100-MHz system bus when the technology becomes available in May.

The M II is actually a member of the 6x86 MX family of microprocessors. The name was changed to position the product more clearly against the Pentium II family. Swearingen pointed out that M II was originally the code name for the 6x86. (Well, almost. "The M II originally an M Arabic 2," pointed out Nathan Brookwood, semiconductor analyst at Dataquest.)

Fitting into the budget computing segment, however, is becoming more difficult as time goes on. Priced at $180 per chip in volume, the M II is less expensive than the $246 300-MHz K6, but both are more than the upcoming Celeron chip.

But several analysts have said that the first generation of the Celeron will be a weak performer. Few computer vendors appear to be planning widespread use of the first Celeron chips.

Many of the cost advantages come as a result of the cheaper production costs of the M II, Swearingen said. The M II uses the older Pentium chip system design, the so-called "Socket 7," and as a result, it is cheaper for computer vendors to adopt than the new "Slot 1" design of the Pentium II.

On the spot market, Socket 7 motherboards cost $50 to $60 while Slot 1 motherboards start at $117. Complementary chipsets for Socket 7 processors are also cheaper and have been getting increasingly sophisticated because Intel is locking chipset competitors out of the Slot 1 market, Swearingen claimed.

In an odd way, "Intel is helping us by keeping it [the Slot 1 architecture] closed," he said.

The M II and the upcoming MXi will constitute Cyrix's primary desktop chips in 1998, said Swearingen. Meanwhile, the MediaGX processor will continue to migrate toward low-cost notebooks, information appliances, and even Windows CE-based devices.

Sales for the 6x86 MX chip kept pace roughly with the K6 in 1997. But the chip has not enjoyed the same level of industry support, said Brookwood. IBM incorporated a 6x86 MX in one model of its U.S. Aptiva PCs line but discontinued the model this year. IBM uses the chip in Canadian computers now.

"The problem they [Cyrix] have had is that they do not have a well-known computer company using their chip," he said.