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Intel to detail new generations at conference

Following a year of product delays and increased competition, the chip giant plans to reassert itself in 2000 by introducing three microprocessor families that will start to replace existing product lines.

Following a year of product delays and increased competition, Intel plans to reassert itself in 2000 by introducing three microprocessor families meant to replace existing product lines.

By fall, "Willamette" processors running at speeds greater than one GHz (gigahertz) and utilizing an enhanced data pathway will be seen in high-end desktop systems, while many lower-end PCs will contain the upcoming "Timna" processor, a derivative of the current Celeron that will contain integrated graphics capabilities. The first servers containing the Itanium chip, which will gradually replace Xeon, will also be out.

Details of the new processors will be made available at the company's Developer Forum beginning Feb. 15 in Palm Springs, Calif. Along with a look at upcoming chip architectures, Intel will outline plans for expanding into the communications market and recruiting developers to write applications for the new processors, among other topics.

Although Itanium will hit the market before Willamette and Timna, the latter two processors will probably garner more attention at the three-day conference. Far less is known about these two, so details will be finely scrutinized.

Willamette will debut at speeds "well in excess of one GHz," said Pat Gelsinger, vice president and general manager of Intel's desktop products group. The chip is based on a different architecture than the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company's Pentium III, although both will run substantially the same software and share a large number of baseline characteristics, he said.

People familiar with the chip have said it will incorporate a vastly improved "system bus," the processor's main conduit for data and a crucial element in performance. The bus will run at 200 MHz, these people said, faster than the 133-MHz bus on Pentium IIIs and equal to the bus on Advanced Micro Devices' high-end Athlon.

In addition, the Willamette bus will be expanded from 64-bits wide to 128-bits wide. This means that more data will move to the processor at a faster rate, explained Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64, who noted, "They (Intel) haven't changed the bus width since 1993."

Manufacturers will be able to match Willamette with high-speed Rambus-style memory, or the increasingly popular Double Data Rate memory.

Willamette is due in the second half, with sources pinning it in the third quarter. Its sales could hit the ground running, analysts say.

By contrast, Itanium sales are expected to get off to a slower start, according to a wide variety of industry observers. The 64-bit chip, Intel's first entry into a high-end market largely defined by such companies as Sun Microsystems and IBM, represents almost a complete break in design compared to its earlier processors. (The 64-bit designation refers to how the processor handles data, and is independent of a 64-bit bus.)

Many think Intel's 64-bit chips may not sell in large numbers until the follow-up "McKinley" processor arrives in late 2001.

While bullish on Itanium's marketplace acceptance, Gelsinger said the transition from Xeon, Intel's current and more conventional server chip, will be gradual. "Itanium will coexist with Xeon for a long time," he said.

On the other hand, Willamette is likely to displace the Pentium III. "By the end of 2001, Pentium III is likely to be off the map," Brookwood said.

The shift won't be as quick as the fairly easy leap from Pentium II to Pentium III, but shouldn't cause much of a fuss. "This is more like the transition from Pentium to Pentium Pro or Pentium II," Brookwood said.

Intel also seems to have fairly high ambitions for a quick transition to Timna from Celeron. "This will become the primary product (in the "value PC" segment) by the end of the year," Andy Bryant, Intel's CFO, said at yesterday's Banc of America technology conference. "Originally it was designed as a way to reduce cost, but what we're learning is that you get performance with it.

In a nutshell, Timna will be a version of Celeron integrated with a graphics chip and a memory controller, two components that typically exist on different pieces of silicon.

"This is where you are going to see the promise of segmentation take place," he added, referring to the industry term for designing chip performance and price to appeal different markets.

Timna will come out at 600 MHz and faster speeds when it debuts in the second half.

Along with the processor efforts, Intel will encourage developers to write applications for all these architectures, said Dan Russell, general manager of the Intel architecture content services group. In particular, the company will work with e-commerce developers to create applications to run on Intel-based servers.