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Intel delays new Pentium 4 chip

A possible glitch with the processor throws a wrench into the company's plans to bring out new silicon for high-performance chips for top-of-the-line PCs.

A possible glitch with a new processor has thrown a wrench into Intel's plans to bring out new silicon for high-performance chips for top-of-the-line PCs.

Intel delivered a new chipset on schedule Monday but delayed a matching Pentium 4 processor at the last minute, leaving a raft of upcoming PCs without a processor, at least for a while.

The chipmaker had planned to deliver both its new 875P chipset and a new 3GHz Pentium 4 processor, paving the way for a number of new desktop and workstation models from PC makers including Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard and Gateway.

Currently, the 3GHz Pentium 4 is the only chip that supports the faster 800MHz bus delivered by the 875P chipset. PC makers could offer computers with the 857P and existing 533MHz-bus Pentium 4 chips, but they are highly unlikely to do so.

The possibility of a problem with the 3GHz Pentium 4, discovered at the last minute, forced the company to delay the chip late Sunday. During tests, Intel found "anomalies" with the new chips and decided not to deliver any more of them to PC manufacturers.

Intel has "seen some anomalies, and we're going to put (the 3GHz Pentium 4) on ship hold, temporarily," said George Alfs, a company spokesman. "We're investigating (the problem) and hope to be shipping soon."

These issues do not affect current chips, such as the 3.06GHz Pentium 4 with a 533MHz bus that has been shipping since November, he said.

PC makers have inventory of the new 3GHz chip, but it is unlikely any of the chips have gotten to end customers yet. Intel is still talking with PC makers about what to do with the 3GHz chips that are in the field.

Launches of complicated new processors, chipsets and other chips are subject to delays, but problems associated with Pentium 4 chips have been fairly rare. Intel

AMD has had its share of delays as well. The most recent pushed out the introduction of the Athlon 64, the company's next generation of desktop processors, until September.

Aiming for the high end
Although desktop PC prices continue to fall, the market for top-of-the-line PCs is active. The 875P chipset, code-named Canterwood, will become the new nervous system for such desktops, which typically are priced at $1,500 and higher.

A chipset routes data between the processor and various PC parts, such as RAM or the hard drive. Boosting the performance of a chipset improves the performance of a PC.

As previously reported, the 875P is the first of two new Intel desktop PC chipsets coming out this spring that are designed to enhance PCs with Intel chips.

The 875P starts that transition by offering PCs a faster 800MHz bus, faster memory and an increased maximum hard-drive capacity. Intel said the chipset will provide a significant increase in performance, compared with current products.

But the 875P will also be known for what it does not include. The chipset is Intel's first product in about six months for high-end PCs that does not include Rambus RDRAM. Instead, the 875P includes dual-channel support for 400MHz double data rate SDRAM, or DDR400.

"There was a situation where Intel's DDR platform had not been at the level of competing platforms," said Dean McCarron, chief analyst at Mercury Research. "This allows Intel to have an offering for every performance level. It represents a significant improvement in input-output capability" for PCs.

Like Via Technologies or Silicon Integrated Systems, which also offer chipsets for Intel processors, Intel chose DDR400. Intel passed over the alternative, Rambus' RDRAM technology, because it wanted to serve the widest portion of the PC market possible, an Intel representative said. At one time, Intel backed RDRAM and expected the memory to proliferate in the PC market. But this has not occurred, due to factors such as a higher price.

Another feature specific to the 875P is called Performance Acceleration Technology (PAT), which increases the speed at which data moves between the processor and memory.

The 875P will also pack AGP (accelerated graphics port) 8X, which connects the graphics chip to the processor; and Serial ATA, a faster and relatively new way to connect a hard drive to the rest of the computer.

But one of its most popular features will likely be an option that allows PC makers to add a technology called RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks). RAID allows two hard drives to pool their storage capacity, turning, say, a pair of 120GB drives into a single storage vessel that equals 240GB. RAID also can be used as a safety net to back up data.

PC makers already are planning models based on the technology. Gateway this week had planned to launch the 700XL, a new desktop model that will utilize RAID to provide 400GB of storage capacity, using two 200GB drives.

The desktop will also incorporate the new 3GHz Pentium 4, 1GB of DDR400 RAM, a DVD burner, a CD burner, ATI Technologies' latest Radeon 9800G Pro graphics card and an 18-inch flat-panel display. It will sell for $3,499. A less expensive model without RAID, the 700X, was also in the works.

Dell, which has also planned to launch a new Dimension 8300 desktop with the 3GHz Pentium 4 and the 875P, expects to include a RAID setup at a later date. The company chose to use an add-in card for RAID, and it is still testing that configuration for bugs, a company representative said.

Dell will take orders on the Dimension 8300 desktop while it investigates the processor issue, a company spokesperson said. "We're still looking into the scope of the issue and how it's going to impact us," he said.

Gateway is also looking into the issue, a spokesperson for the company said.

Should a long delay result, PC makers could still use the 875P chipset. Pairing the chipset with current 533MHz bus Pentium 4 chips would still produce some performance gains for future desktops, McCarron said.

"They could easily go with current bus frequency processors until 800MHz bus parts become available," he said. "Though, unless it's a major flaw, I can't imagine it it'll mess up any (PC makers') production plans."

HP, meanwhile, announced a new xw4100 workstation model featuring the new Pentium 4. The desktop, designed for tasks such as computer-aided design, will offer customers higher performance than previous HP workstation models, the company said. The machine, due out in May, will start at $799 for a bare-bones system with a basic graphics card. When beefed up for 3D graphics duties, it will cost $2,500.

On the horizon
Despite the possibility of delays in the launch of the new desktops, Intel views the 875P chipset as the start of a transition that will spawn a new generation of PCs.

A second chipset, dubbed Springdale, will include many of the same features as the 875P when it is released in May. Springdale will cost less and be available in more configurations, making it the choice for bulk of the Intel processor desktop PC market.

The most popular Springdale version is likely to offer the 800MHz bus as well as Intel's current 533MHz and 400MHz bus speeds. It should also include a built-in graphics chip. The combination of bus speeds and graphics would allow manufacturers to build a wide range of desktops from the same platform.

Intel is also expected, within weeks, to launch a new 3.2GHz Pentium 4 chip as its new flagship desktop processor. The announcement could include price cuts for older chips.

The company may also add more Pentium 4 processors to its lineup, likely at speeds of 2.8GHz, 2.6GHz and 2.4GHz. These chips will sport the company's new 800MHz bus and include Intel's hyperthreading technology for boosting application performance.

Aside from providing a wider variety of clock speeds, the chips also could help increase the popularity of hyperthreading. Some PC makers have been shipping PC and workstation models with the feature turned off by default. The new chips should lead PC makers to tout the technology more actively.

Once it begins shipping, the new 3GHz Pentium 4 chip will sell for $417 in lots of 1,000. The 875P will cost $50 without RAID and $53 with RAID, when purchased in lots of 10,000, Intel said.