Intel wins race to 90 nanometers with Prescott

Intel Corp. released the first major revision to the Pentium 4 processor in two years with the introduction of four new processors based on its 90 nanometer Prescott core Sunday.

The chips are also Intel’s first 90 nanometer products to hit the market. One of the benefits of shrinking chip manufacturing technologies is the ability to put more transistors on a smaller chip, and Intel was able to more than double the amount of transistors from the current Northwood Pentium 4 core, said Tim Thraves, desktop marketing manager for Intel.

“We think this is an industry milestone,” said Bill Siu, vice-president and general manager of Intel’s Desktop Platforms Group.

The new processors arrived at 3.4GHz, 3.2GHz, 3GHz, and 2.8GHz, speeds that overlap current Pentium 4 processors. If two chips with different cores are available at the same clock speed, the Prescott chip will be known as the 3.4E GHz Pentium 4, while a Northwood chip with an 800MHz system bus gets the 3.4C GHz brand, Thraves said.

Prescott’s smaller chip size also allows Intel to cut more chips from a silicon wafer than is possible with the Northwood core. This cuts Intel’s manufacturing costs per chip, and Intel will rapidly shift its customers to Prescott in order to take advantage of the lower costs.

Most of the major PC vendors plan to have systems available with the new chips as of Sunday, including Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., and Sony Corp. Prescott is suited for both business and consumer PCs, but contains 13 new instructions that help improve the performance of multimedia applications such as video, Thraves said.

One of those instructions will boost the performance of three-dimensional graphics when Intel’s next-generation Grantsdale chipset is released later this year, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst with Mercury Research Inc. in Cave Creek, Ariz. A new data format that enables the processor to perform matrix math is a clear indication that Grantsdale and Prescott will help improve Intel’s integrated graphics, he said.

Business customers tend to hold off on purchases when new technologies are introduced, said Roger Kay, vice-president of client computing with IDC in Framingham, Mass. Most of the initial demand for Prescott chips will come from consumers, Kay said.

Intel envisions Prescott as the centrepiece of the digital home, powering PCs such as the entertainment PC concept Intel unveiled at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, Siu said. The entertainment PC is just like a normal desktop, but is designed to look like a consumer electronics device such as a stereo receiver in order to appear more at home in a living room setting.

Other changes that come with Prescott include more Level 2 cache. Processors use cache to store frequently used instructions close to the CPU, so it doesn’t have to access those instructions from memory each time it needs to process them. Prescott has 1MB of cache, up from the 512KB found in the Northwood Pentium 4 chips.

One change that usually comes along with a shift to a new processing technology will not come with Prescott. The four new chips will consume between 90 and 115 watts of power, more than the high-end Northwood Pentium 4 chips consume, Thraves said.

Normally a new processing technology allows chip manufacturers to reduce the amount of power consumed by a chip. IBM Corp. recently disclosed documentation that shows it cut power consumption of its 90 nanometer PowerPC chips in half compared to the older versions.

But any power savings at this new generation for Intel were taken up by the expanded cache and new instructions, Thraves said. Analysts have also expressed concerns about heat dissipation at this process size, when electrons can leak out of the chip because the feature sizes are so thin.

Intel also released a faster version of the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition Sunday, as well as a faster Northwood Pentium 4 processor. The 3.4GHz Extreme Edition chip will be the highest performing chip in Intel’s arsenal, and is targeted at gamers and technical users that demand high performance, Thraves said.

Intel plans to bring Prescott to 4GHz by the end of the year, Kay said. At that point, the chips launched Monday will have come down in price and will be more attractive to corporate buyers, he said.

By the end of the year, Intel is also expected to discuss the next desktop processor on its road map, currently code-named Tejas. Intel plans to demonstrate a processor with 64-bit extensions at its upcoming Spring Intel Developer Forum in two weeks, and Tejas might be the first processor to incorporate those extensions, analysts said this week.

There is also speculation among analysts and industry watchers that Prescott contains 64-bit extensions that have been disabled because software support has yet to arrive. Intel used a similar strategy when it introduced hyperthreading into the desktop world, McCarron said.

Intel is not ready to discuss any features of Prescott that do not currently have software support, Siu said.

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