SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- When Intel Corp. here today officially unveils its long-awaited Pentium 4 microprocessor line, there will be few, if any, surprises, about the chip in terms of specifications and product pricing.
But Intel--which has revealed most of the details about the Pentium 4 in a systematic, step-by-step approach to the media over the last several months--will have a lot riding on the chip, perhaps even the company's entire future, according to analysts.
The Pentium 4 is critical to the company for several reasons. One reason is the chip represents the first major change in the company's processor architecture since 1995. Secondly, the Pentium 4 is geared for the high-end desktop/workstation market right now, but it will eventually become the company's mainstream processor line, replacing its current line of its Pentium 3 and Celeron chips over time.
More importantly, the Pentium 4 will keep the company ahead in the high stakes processor race against its main rival in the business, Advanced Micro Devices Inc., hinted Paul Otellini, executive vice president and general manager of the Intel Architecture Group. "With this launch, we will be 300-MHz ahead of them," Otellini said in a press briefing in San Francisco on Friday.
Otellini, Intel's microprocessor chief, was referring to AMD's Athlon MPU line, which runs at speeds up to 1.2-GHz. As expected, Intel initially rolled out two versions of the Pentium 4, which will run at speeds of 1.4- and 1.5-GHz.
During the briefing, Intel also outlined its bold plans for the Pentium 4. "We will ramp up the Pentium 4 in all price and performance points by the end of 2001," Otellini said. "We expect to have a 2-GHz version in the third quarter of 2000."
Analysts were bullish about the prospects of the Pentium 4 in the market. But given the fact that Intel still relies on its processor business for the bulk of its sales and profits, it could be a major disaster if the company fails to execute its Pentium 4 plans.
Intel still derives some 85% of its total revenues from the processor business alone, pointed out Tony Massimini, an analyst who tracks the market for Semico Research Corp., in Phoenix. "The processor business is still the cash cow for Intel," Massimini said. "The other four operating divisions within Intel are operating in the red."
As a result, "It's important for Intel to get the ball rolling to the next-generation of processors," he said. "The roll out of the Pentium 4 is critical to the company's whole future."
Time will tell if Intel will succeed or fail with this chip, but the company faces some major challenges along the way. On the competitive front, Intel faces its biggest challenge from AMD. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company is gaining market share in the processor front, and seems to have the upper hand in the business right now.
"The Pentium 3 from Intel is stuck at 1.1-GHz right now," the Semico analyst said. "But there's a performance gap between the Pentium 3 and the Pentium 4. However, AMD has a product that fits between this gap. And, as far as anyone can tell, the only thing that is holding AMD back is the lack of manufacturing capacity," he added.
In what could be a temporary issue, the Pentium 4 works in conjunction with only one chip set-Intel's own 850 circuit. The 850 only supports supports Rambus' memory architecture and not SDRAMs or DDR DRAMS.
This could change, however. "Don't be surprised to see third-party chip sets in the market that supports other memory architectures," he said.
At Intel's briefing last week, meanwhile, the company repeated the specifications of the Pentium 4. As expected, the chip features the Rapid Execution Engine, which executes instructions at two times the speed of the current Pentium 3 processor line. It also includes a 20-stage hyper-pipelined architecture and a 400-MHz system bus. The system bus enables a total bandwidth of 3.2-gigabytes-per-second.
Operating at 50 watts at 1.5-GHz, the chip also utilizes a SIMD architecture, which executes 144 new instructions for video, multimedia, and imaging applications. It also includes 256-Kbytes of L2 cache.
Build in a 0.18-micron process technology, the chips come in a 423-pin PBGA package. The 1.4-GHz version is $644, while the 1.5-GHz chip is $819. Prices are in 1,000-piece lots.