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Intel to ring in 2004 with delayed Prescott launch

Dec 12, 20035 mins
Computers and PeripheralsNetworking

Any expectations that Intel’s next-generation Prescott processor will make an appearance in 2003 are fading fast as the year winds to a close. The chip had been expected to make its debut in the fourth quarter, but only a select number of PC manufacturers will get their hands on Intel’s first 90-nanometer processor before 2004.

Prescott is an update to the current Pentium 4 processor. It will come with double the cache of current Pentium 4 chips with up to 1M byte of Level 2 cache, and will also contain 13 new instructions that improve the performance of video encoding and floating-point applications, among other things.

In the first half of the year, at the Spring Intel Developer Forum and the company’s spring analyst meeting, Intel executives indicated that Prescott would ship this year. But as the second half of the year rolled around, Intel changed its guidance to say that it would ship the chip “for revenue” in the fourth quarter.

Prescott is currently in production at Intel’s fabs, said George Alfs, an Intel spokesman. The Santa Clara company will record revenue from shipments of Prescott in the fourth quarter, he said.

The slip in the launch date can probably be attributed to problems Intel has experienced in supplying enough power to compensate for increased performance and current leakage, which required additional time to make sure the company could support the higher thermal characteristics of Prescott, said Kevin Krewell, senior editor of the Microprocessor Report in San Jose.

Normally when chip companies roll out new process technologies to their manufacturing lines, they benefit from a decrease in power consumption for a new chip that runs at the same clock speed as a chip based on the older technology, Krewell said.

In this case, it’s not clear that Intel will see a decrease in power consumption in part due to problems associated with transistor leakage at 90 nanometers, he said. As processors get smaller, the widths of the wires inside the chip shrink to the point where electrons can escape through the interconnects and leak out as heat.

There is a direct relationship between faster clock speeds and greater power consumption. The current performance leader in Intel’s mainstream processor line is the 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 processor, which is designed to consume a maximum of 82 watts. The Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition consumes 92 watts, but is only available in limited quantities.

Since Prescott also has more cache and more instructions than the current Pentium 4 generation, “they’ve spent their power savings” that would accompany the jump to 90 nanometers, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst with Mercury Research Inc. in Cave Creek, Ariz.

The additional performance requirements, coupled with the increases in current leakage, make for a chip that will probably consume more power than previous generation chips at equal clock speeds, Krewell said.

At the Fall Intel Developer Forum, the company warned motherboard makers that they would need to design boards sold in 2004 to handle a maximum thermal envelope of 110 watts, Krewell said. Intel President and COO Paul Otellini has said that Intel plans to hit 4 GHz with the Prescott chips by the end of 2004, a target that will likely require that much power, he said.

Prescott would therefore be expected to launch at around 90 watts with a clock speed of 3.4 GHz, Krewell said. Intel will probably want to launch a chip at a higher clock speed than the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition to ensure it has a new performance leader, he said.

In order to support these higher power requirements, Intel has likely had to redesign its infrastructure to accommodate the need for larger amounts of power, Krewell said. A whole series of components such as chipsets and motherboards must be designed with the maximum power requirements in mind, and that takes time, he said.

Otellini said during Intel’s third-quarter earnings conference call that the company had changed the thermal envelope for Prescott in order to allow future chips to run at higher clock speeds than it had originally anticipated would be possible. But greater-than-expected amounts of leakage from the 90-nanometer process could also have contributed to the change, Krewell said.

It takes about six weeks for a vendor to get a PC ready to ship in large volumes once Intel has delivered the processor, McCarron said. So if the company began shipping the processor in December, Intel and PC vendors would be ready to launch the chip by January or February, he said.

In addition to the 3.4 GHz chip, Intel will likely introduce slower chips with the Prescott architecture in order to take advantage of cost savings associated with the smaller die of a 90-nanometer chip, McCarron said. Along with the move to 90 nanometers, Intel has almost completed a shift to 300-millimeter wafers, which allows the company to cut more chips from a single wafer and reduce its cost per chip.

Intel plans to introduce Prescott aggressively in 2004, with the chip accounting for 60% of the company’s desktop processors by the second quarter, Otellini said in November. In order to meet that target, Intel would probably introduce Prescott chips at the same price and clock speeds as current Pentium 4 processors, McCarron said.

PC vendors and distributors would select the Prescott chip with its higher performance and better margins over current Pentium 4 chips, especially if they wouldn’t have to pay a premium, McCarron said.