The Pentium 4 will succeed the Pentium III and in many ways will be a landmark release for the chipmaker. For one, Willamette, and a related chip for servers code-named "Foster," will feature an entirely new architecture, which will give the company room to innovate or tap new features.
For more than five years, new Intel microprocessors have relied on the same basic architecture. The Pentium Pro, which came out in October 1995, effectively features the same "P6" design as the Pentium II, the Celeron, Xeon processors and the Pentium III.
Although the P6 architecture has enjoyed a good commercial life, the architecture is reaching its performance limits. One of the reasons Advanced Micro Devices has been able to put so much pressure on Intel in recent months is that its Athlon chip features a brand-new architecture with plenty of untapped headroom. This has permitted AMD to raise the clock speed almost at will.
Pentium 4 will debut at an initial speed of 1.4 GHz, according to Intel. Rather than increase speed in 33-MHz or 50-MHz increments, the chips will jump by 100 MHz at a time. In other words, the next step up will be a 1.5-GHz chip. As with the earlier Pentium generations, the Pentium 4 will likely be split into sub-brands.
Another feature will be a 400-MHz system bus, roughly three times as fast as Intel's current system bus. The system bus serves as a data conduit between the processor and the rest of the computer. The faster it is, the better. When combined with Rambus memory, Willamette computers are expected to establish new levels of desktop performance, analysts have said.
The chip is expected to debut late in the third quarter or early in the fourth quarter. Paul Otellini, general manager of the Intel Architecture Group, said in April that Willamette computers would be available for the peak buying season in 2000. An Intel spokesman said "hundreds of thousands" of systems will ship this year.
Many predicted that Intel would use the Pentium 4 designation. The only thing that may catch notice is the shift from Roman to Arabic numerals.
"They've got a lot of brand equity in Pentium," said analyst Nathan Brookwood of Insight 64. "I would be surprised if it was something else."
Chairman Andy Grove said earlier this year that it could be expected that the company would leverage the Pentium brand name in some fashion.
"Pentium is one of the most recognized brands in the world, and it has strong equity with users," said Erik Reid, senior brand manager at Intel, who added that the color scheme of the chip will be blue and orange, rather than blue and green. "We wanted a bold contemporary look for the new badge."
News.com's Ian Fried contributed to this report.