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Intel defends its base as mobile future awaits

Sep 19, 20035 mins

Talk of the blurring line between mobile communications and computing was central to this week’s Fall Intel Developer Forum, where Intel gave its vision of a converged future, but even with that message dominating, the major announcements at the show were about desktop and server processors.

SAN JOSE – Talk of the blurring line between mobile communications and computing was central to this week’s Fall Intel Developer Forum, where Intel gave its vision of a converged future, but even with that message dominating, the major announcements at the show were about desktop and server processors.

The successful launch of the Centrino brand with its notebook processor, chipset and wireless chip earlier this year was as important to the company as the launch of the Pentium brand name was in 1993, said Anand Chandrasekher, vice president and general manager of Intel’s mobility products group, in an interview at the forum in San Jose.

Intel unveiled the next-generation Sonoma platform for notebooks, which will probably carry the Centrino brand name in one form or another, Chandrasekher said. The company has invested a lot of time and money building the brand, and it wouldn’t make sense to change it so quickly, although a final decision has not been made, he said.

Sonoma will feature Dothan, which is the 90-nanometer version of the Pentium M processor, the Alviso chipset, and a dual-band version of Intel’s Pro/Wireless chip with support for multiple 802.11 standards. It will be released sometime in 2004.

Intel also announced the version of its XScale technology for cell phones and personal digital assistants this week. Bulverde is the code name for a series of processors that will appear in 2004, said Ron Smith, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s wireless communications and computing group.

But the two most important announcements came out of Intel’s desktop and server divisions, analysts said Friday.

Intel headed off next week’s expected announcement of Advanced Micro Devices’ (AMD) Athlon 64 desktop processor with the launch of the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition chip. The chip is basically a desktop version of Intel’s Xeon MP server processor with an 800-MHz front-side bus, a different thermal design, and without support for use in multiprocessor systems, said Kevin Krewell, senior editor of the Microprocessor Report in San Jose.

The processor will debut at 3.2 GHz, with 2M bytes of Level 3 cache, Intel said, just like the Xeon MP. Intel’s current Pentium 4 chips have 512K bytes of cache.

Gamers are the target market for the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, said Intel Vice President and General Manager Louis Burns during a keynote speech. AMD has spent a lot of time working with the gaming community to build support for Athlon 64, and Intel’s move clearly shows it wants to compete, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst for Insight 64 in Saratoga, Calif.

“Gamers are a small but important niche in the PC market, and some of them will pay top dollar for the best performance. Intel certainly wanted to have something in its lineup to match or try and offset what AMD might do with Athlon 64,” Brookwood said.

Pricing information was not immediately available for the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, but it will likely be a premium above the $637 asking price for the currently available 3.2-GHz Pentium 4, Krewell said. Intel will release that information in November when it ships the processor to system vendors, said Intel spokesman George Alfs earlier this week.

While also trying to take the spotlight from AMD, Intel might be sending a signal about the availability of Prescott, the 90-nanometer successor to the Pentium 4, Krewell said. With the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition not expected to ship until November, it’s unlikely that Intel will ship Prescott until late this year, he said.

On the server side of the house, Intel put a dual-core Xeon chip known as Tulsa on its road map for around 2006. The company has discussed its plans for bringing multiple cores to its Itanium processors in the past, so the announcement wasn’t entirely unexpected, Brookwood said.

Intel officially announced the multicore Tanglewood processor this week, after announcing the dual core Montecito Itanium processor earlier this year. Sources familiar with Intel’s plans said Tanglewood will come with eight cores when it is released in 2006.

But the Xeon announcement was nonetheless significant, because until a technology shows up on a road map, there’s no guarantee it will make its way into products, Brookwood said.

The Tulsa announcement also raises the question of when Intel will bring multicore technology to the desktop, Krewell said.

With signs of improvement in the PC market and the overall economy, it looks like Intel has emerged from the downturn of the last few years in excellent shape. The company is well positioned for a recovery with a significant lead in the market for desktop, notebook and low-end server processors.

AMD has a chance to steal market share from Intel if it can demonstrate a market for 64-bit technology on the desktop while producing superior or equal performance to Intel on 32-bit applications, and its Opteron server processor continues to score design wins within the high-performance computing community and the enterprise.

But when and if Intel decides to enter the 64-bit desktop market, or develop a 64-bit processor for low-end servers, it’s doubtful whether AMD can match Intel’s manufacturing ability and marketing resources.

“The company is just a technology powerhouse, and virtually no one can compete with Intel across the breadth of their product line,” Brookwood said.