Tech Industry

Fastest PowerPC chip debuts

Motorola introduces 366-MHz PowerPC processors, which use less power and should be included in Power Macs soon.

Motorola introduced the industry's fastest PowerPC microprocessors, "G3" chips that run at 366 MHz while using less power than competing processors from Intel.

The chips, which should soon find their way into desktop and notebook systems, are chiefly intended for use in Apple's Macintosh computer and for smaller devices requiring high performance.

Formally known as the PowerPC 750, the new chips run at speeds of 366, 333, and 300 MHz. The first two are new performance landmarks for the PowerPC architecture, according to Motorola.

All three processors reduce power consumption by more than half when compared to existing PowerPC 750 microprocessors at the same speed, the company said. Low power consumption means that the fastest PowerPC chips can be used in portable computers and small devices--unlike the fastest Intel chips, which cannot be used in portables because they run too hot and use too much power.

Intel's speediest chip for notebooks runs at 266-MHz and consumes 7.8 watts of power, about twice that of the new PowerPC chip. The older 233-MHz Pentium MMX processor for notebooks consumes a more modest 3.4 watts but isn't as fast as the Pentium II.

"For a specific market, like notebooks, the PowerPC has a pretty big edge. Intel's fastest chip is only 266 MHz, whereas the new [366-MHz] PowerPC 750 would easily fit into a notebook environment. You could see a very dramatic advantage for the PowerPC," said Linley Gwennap, senior analyst with MicroDesign Resources, though he added that "in terms of the desktop, it looks like pretty much an even race."

The newest members of the PowerPC family use the smaller and faster transistors incorporated in the 350-MHz 604e PowerPC chip that debuted in 1997, according to Will Swearingen, marketing manager with Motorola's Semiconductor Products Sector.

"This gets us to 366-MHz much faster with a quicker time to market than if you do a major [transition to the 0.25 micron manufacturing process]," Swearingen said. The new parts are built using Motorola's existing 0.29 micron manufacturing process.

The smaller transistors also reduce the internal voltage consumed by the processor from 2.6 volts to 1.9 volts, and the power consumption to 3.5 watts, which is half of the previous chips. Motorola said that this makes the chip suitable for use in embedded applications ranging from networking and telecommunications to desktop and mobile computing.

Chip industry analysts say that the new PowerPC 750s are, for the most part, faster than a Pentium II at the same speed, though performance varies widely depending on the application. Thus, Gwennap said, a 366-MHz PowerPC 750 is generally equivalent to a 400-MHz Pentium II based on the widely used Spec benchmark performance ratings.

Apple claims that the chips perform up to twice as fast as the Pentium II chips in integer operations based on results from different benchmark tests. Integer performance typically factors into the performance of office productivity applications and many 3D graphics applications, while floating point performance is needed for applications such as scientific calculations.

In terms of sheer clock speed, Intel has plans for desktop computers to reach 500 MHz by the first half of 1999 and 600 MHz by the end of next year.

Motorola and IBM are expected to hit 400 MHz before the end of this year and are expected to reach 500 MHz in the first half of 1999, meaning that the PowerPC and Intel architecture will be running roughly neck and neck in the speed category. However, Intel's notebook processors won't hit 366-MHz until the second half of 1999.

Motorola's Swearingen reported that the company has made pre-production versions of its "G4" processor and will begin sampling this year. The G4 will be Motorola's first 32-bit processor built using copper technology and will include AltiVec technology for improving a computer's data crunching abilities.

Apple's Power Macintosh computers currently use the PowerPC 750, but new systems in development are expected to use Motorola's G4 processor.

Meanwhile, IBM is expected to unveil its first copper-process chips by September, as previously reported.

The new G3 chip's suggested unit price at 366 MHz is $595 in quantities of 1,000. The three new microprocessors have a total of 64 kilobytes of cache memory on chip and 6.35 million transistors.

Apple has not given any definite indication when it will incorporate Motorola and IBM's upcoming chips in the Power Mac line, but sources have told CNET News.com that the G3s announced today will be part of a desktop refresh that could come as soon as next month and no later than September.