SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Intel Corp. here has finally brought out the last pieces of the puzzle required to support a Rambus DRAM-based system, unveiling Coppermine, a faster version of its Pentium III microprocessor using a 0.18-micron manufacturing process, and the 840 chip set designed for workstations and servers. This is not to be confused with the 820 chip set, code-named Camino, which was scheduled to launch last month but was pulled back in the face of an embarrassing last-minute technical glitch.
Coppermine is a faster version of the Pentium III processor with an integrated L2 cache, produced at a finer line width. The new CPUs are available for the value desktop market in 500- and 550-MHz versions; in Slot 1 configurations for high-end desktop computers at speeds ranging from 533 MHz to 733 MHz; in Xeon versions for the workstation market at speeds of 600 MHz to 733 MHz; and for the mobile PC market in frequencies varying from 400 MHz to 500 MHz.
At least for the moment, Intel has recaptured the lead in the megahertz race from Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s Athlon chip, which currently comes in speeds up to 700 MHz. The two companies have been leapfrogging each other with faster and faster top speeds since the first Athlon rolled out this summer.
Most of the Coppermine line supports system bus speeds of 133 MHz, although the mobile devices, the value desktop products and some of the Slot 1 chips are designed for the 100-MHz bus speed.
Although Intel will continue to produce the 0.25-micron Pentium III products, the company clearly intends the Coppermine family to replace its predecessor very soon. At comparable frequencies and system bus speeds, the finer line widths and integrated cache give the newer chips a performance edge of about 12% for integer applications and 20% for floating-point calculations, according to Jim Wilson, architecture manager for the product line.
Wilson noted that the plan is to price the Coppermine chips below the current Pentium III devices, so there will be no advantage at all for customers to hang onto the legacy chips-although Intel says it will provide them to anybody who is locked into specific designs.
Wilson said the 0.18-micron process will yield much faster chips in the future, and the short-term road map features an 800-MHz version sometime next year. AMD has stated plans to deliver a 1-GHz version of its Athlon next year. The current Athlon chips-which continue to hold their own against the best of the Pentium line-are still produced at the 0.25-micron level.
However, Wilson maintained that head-to-head, the Coppermine chips offer better performance than the Athlon devices, citing the integrated 256-Kbyte cache as a big reason for the performance edge. Another feature is the Coppermine's advanced system buffering, which increases the number of on-die fill buffers from four to six. That scheme allows the chip to use its processing power more efficiently.
"In the Coppermine chips, nearly the entire system bandwidth is utilized," Wilson said, "compared with about two-thirds of the bandwidth being utilized in the current Pentium III chips."
The 840 chip set, meanwhile, features dual memory channels, each of which can support up to two RDRAM modules for a total memory bandwidth of 3.2 gigabits/second.
The 820 chip set was originally designed to support up to three memory modules, but the company has determined that the product does not pass validation tests in a three-module configuration. Intel now plans to release the Camino in a two-module version before the end of the year. This schedule shift means that the new 840 chip set will enable the very first RDRAM-based machines to ship shortly, according to the company.
While the technological accomplishments at the high end of the microprocessor market are impressive, it remains unclear how many people are still paying attention to the processor-speed horse race.
"The fact is, the CPU in any $500 system available today is better than the CPU in last year's servers, and there aren't very many applications that will push that CPU to use all of that power," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst for Mercury Research in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Processing speed has become a marketing issue."