Intel’s first 90 nanometer mobile chip delayed

Notebook buyers will have to wait until the second quarter for Dothan, the 90 nanometer version of Intel Corp.’s Pentium M chip, Intel said during its fourth-quarter earnings conference call this week.

In order to make sure Dothan could be manufactured at high volumes, Intel needed to modify some circuits on the chip, said Intel president and chief operating officer Paul Otellini on a conference call with media and analysts Wednesday. The chip had been expected to ship this quarter, but will now ship in the second quarter, he said.

The modifications to some of Dothan’s circuits are not related to any thermal problems resulting from the jump to the 90 nanometer process technology, said George Alfs, an Intel spokesperson.

The chip industry is preparing to move its chip making equipment from the 0.13-micron process technology generation to the 90 nanometer process generation. The number refers to the width of the circuit lines on a processor. As chips reach these tiny sizes, it becomes more and more likely that the electrons moving through the chips will be able to escape the ultrathin circuit walls and leak out as heat.

Analysts have suspected that thermal issues resulted in the delay of Prescott, the 90 nanometer version of the Pentium 4, to the first quarter from an expected fourth quarter launch. Heat dissipation is always a concern of chip designers, but the issue is magnified for notebook processors that need to deliver high performance while consuming little power in a small area.

But if it’s not related to heat dissipation, the delay could be chalked up to just about anything that chip vendors normally experience when validating a new part, said Peter Glaskowsky, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report in San Jose. “Things like this come up all the time, although usually they’re noticed sooner,” he said.

Intel might have had problems delivering the yields it needed to produce chips at higher clock speeds, Glaskowsky said. Processors are all cut from the same wafer, and designed to run at a certain clock speed. Not every processor is capable of running at the target clock speed, due to minor imperfections, but those that fail to meet the target will usually work reliably at a lower clock speed.

If Intel couldn’t get enough chips that worked reliably at its target clock speed, it might have needed to redesign some of the circuitry to reach those speeds, Glaskowsky said.

When it does arrive, Dothan will come with 2MB of cache, twice the amount of current Pentium M processors. A processor with more cache can store greater quantities of frequently used instructions close to the CPU, improving performance by not having to access those instructions from memory every time they need to be executed.

The delay is not expected to have any impact on Intel’s first-quarter revenue, but no company ever wants to make its customers wait for a product, Glaskowsky said. “Every quarter you can’t ship a product is something that hurts,” he said.

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