The October surprise advances the Intel road map, because it means the new chip will arrive sooner and work faster than expected. The chip is an important part of the firm's plan to stave off the threat posed by AMD's Athlon processor, which performs better than Intel's current Pentium III chips, according to many tests.
Before now, most analysts predicted that Coppermine would come out at a speed of 600 MHz or 667 MHz. Originally due in September, Intel recently pushed it back to November, because it was having difficulty making large volumes of the chip at 600 MHz and faster.
Coppermine chips will also come to the notebook computer market in about the same time frame, helping close the gap between notebooks and desktops.
Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64, said of the new plan: "It is a lift up, and they need it. The 650-MHz Athlon performs at the same level as a 700-MHz-plus Pentium III. If Intel is going to achieve performance parity with Athlon, they're going to have to do things like this."
Intel also has released "first silicon"--the actual first prototypes--of its next-generation Merced processors to computer makers, the company announced today at its Developer Forum. The samples were produced two weeks ago.
Until now, operating system companies and server makers were using a software simulation of Merced.
The Coppermine chip has some major improvements over current Pentium III chips. For one thing, it packs the brains of a Pentium III onto a smaller area by shrinking the size of the circuitry from a 0.25-micron size to a 0.18-micron size. That makes the chips run faster and means that Intel can boost production by carving more chips off a single silicon wafer.
In addition, the Coppermine chips will come with 256 kilobytes of integrated secondary cache, special high-speed memory that helps to satisfy the appetite for data of ever-faster CPUs. The Coppermine chips, like their lower-end Celeron siblings, will have that cache integrated with the chip itself, a move that makes the cache more effective. But where the Celeron has 128 kilobytes of cache, the Coppermine will have 256 kilobytes.
Also at the conference, Barrett demonstrated an 800-MHz version of Coppermine. Although the 800-MHz version isn't being released yet, Barrett pointed out that Intel wasn't using any special cooling equipment to run it, often a feature of fast chip demos. "No special gadgets, no cold nitrogen," he said.
Barrett wouldn't give exact megahertz for the first Coppermine but said, "The product that will come out will have a seven as the first digit."
Beyond processors, Barrett said that the industry must continue to build on its efforts to simplify the computer experience. "These things we make should work like standard consumer electronics devices."
In addition, industrial design will come to make PCs more attractive. As part of this, Barrett showed off the Ottoman PC, a footstool-shaped PC. The top flips up to show a screen, and it comes with a simulated jaguar-skin slip cover.
"Why doesn't a PC work like a television set?" Barrett asked rhetorically. "We have to create technology that is adaptable to the human user, rather than the other way around."
Many of the ease-of-use efforts are grouped within the Easy PC initiative, which seeks to simplify and hence enhance home computing in 2000. Among the goals of Easy PC: to help spread USB 2, a connector technology that will expand how PCs can be connected to consumer electronics. It succeeds USB.
Simplification, however, is easier said than done. Many of the industry initiatives being combined in the Easy PC initiative Barrett mentioned in his keynote, such as the "instant availability," have been talked about for years, but haven't been released or adopted for widespread use.
With instant availability, the computer only enters a sleep state when turned off. When a user wants to get back on line, the PC doesn't have to reboot. The operating system, the applications, and network connection are automatically rejuvenated.
Merced's modest cartridge
Merced itself is actually not as large as one might think. The entire Merced cartridge--the package that surrounds the chip and allows you to pick it up and plug it in--is slightly smaller than a 3x5 index card and is made of metal. It's about the same size as Intel's Xeon packaging.
The chip itself has 400 pins. Pins serve as electrical connectors; more pins mean greater expense but better performance. Current Xeon and Pentium III chips use a slot connector which Intel has said is being phased out.
The Merced cartridge comes with a chip and up to 4MB of secondary cache memory, said Steve Smith, vice president and general manager of the IA-64 processor division.
"We're shipping in very limited quantities to (computer makers)," Smith said. "It is the most complex microprocessor we have ever made...this is a huge milestone."
Intel has also begun to ship samples of the 460GX chip set, the essential supporting chips that will accompany Merced and serve as the communications conduit between Merced and any computers it comes in.
While Intel's chipset will likely be used in relatively ordinary Merced-based computers, systems such as SGI's upcoming SN-1 will use custom chipsets.
News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.