Which Processor Does Your Customer Need?
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1999. First
published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, October 1999
In the past almost-two decades of PCs, we?ve seen
periods of rapid change
alternating with periods where nothing much happens?when technology,
CPU design and speeds maxes out for a while.
When the 486-66 or Pentium 133/166 defined the high
end, it seemed
like time stood still. And that?s when competitors to Intel?AMD, Cyrix,
Centaur and the like were able to make their move, sliding in to claim
a piece of the market.
But this year, every few months have brought new,
faster processor models.
So far in 1999, we?ve seen the release of Intel?s Pentium III and AMD?s
Athlon (K7) designs, at speeds starting at 450 MHz, and creeping
through 500, 550, 600, to 650 MHz. Even low-end models like Intel?s
have been announced with 550 MHz speeds?several notches faster than
year?s top-end models.
The rapid pace of change has made it harder for
to keep up?Centaur dropped out of the race, and Cyrix was nearly shut
when owner NCR announced they wanted out. Only AMD remains as a strong
competitor to Intel?and while their newly released Athlon processor is
the current speediest, and is being adopted by name-brand companies
IBM and Compaq, Intel is keeping the pressure on the company by
prices across its product line, and especially in its higher-end CPUs.
Intel is moving production over to its Coppermine
CPUs with a 0.18 micron core. By shrinking the transistor size from the
current 0.25 micron size, processors can be made to run faster with
heat and power requirements. At the same time, the smaller size frees
space for other components, allowing, for example, L2 cache to be built
right onto the processor die running at full CPU speed, rather than the
in-the-cartridge cache running at half-speed as in the current
of Pentium-II and P-III CPUs.
P-III-600s based on Coppermine should be available
starting in October?these
will be followed up with Celeron-550s, early in 2000. Later in the
the high-end Xeon processors will be moved to this technology. At the
time, the low-end Celeron chips are expected to gain much of the other
technology?s currently limited to the higher-end P-IIIs?next year?s
should feature the SIMD multimedia instruction set, for example, along
with a 100 MHz bus?up from the current 66 MHz bus, but below the 133
of the latest P-IIIs. The new Celerons will ship on a new form factor?a
so-called Flip Chip, for Socket 370. In this design, the pins that
the CPU to the socket have been moved from edge of the package to the
resulting in a shorter electrical path for improved performance and
The improved technology should let next Spring?s Celeron?s outperform
summer?s much more expensive P-IIIs.
Newest P-III designs will be available both in the
package, and in the Flip Chip design. Unlike the Celeron, they will be
able to run at a 133 MHz bus speed, and will continue to include 256 kb
L2 cache (compared to the Celeron?s 128 kb cache).
With this increased activity from Intel as well as
AMD?s Athlon release,
it will become increasingly difficult to differentiate models by the
of the core CPUs. Even low-end CPUs will be outperforming the high-end
models of the recent past. We can differentiate product lines like
Workstations: only a minority of users?Web and 3D
graphic content creators
and serious gamers will require 500+ MHz P-III and Athlon-based
Dual-processor systems will continue to be based on Xeon or P-IIIs for
now?dual-processor Athlon motherboards can be expected next year for
basic server market. (Clone-maker Future Power has announced a
overclocked Celeron system but this is really aimed at the
Gamer market). Currently, Athlon systems outperform P-III systems
at the same clock speed.
Professionals/Serious Enthusiasts: these users may not
really need P-III
or Athlon systems, but they?re going to want them, and will be
on them?be sure to offer models for them?complete with DVD or CD-RW and
high end 3D-video options.
Small Business Users: these users don?t need and can?t
built with top of the line processors?Celeron and AMD K6-2 processors
more than enough power to meet their needs. DVD and 3D-video are wasted
on this market as well.
Corporate Users: similar to the small business users,
these users will
be happy with Celeron/K6-2/Pentium-II units. Most larger enterprises
tended to insist on ?Intel Inside? and a name brand, but this may be
Home Users: divide up between users whose needs can be
met with virtually
any of the current processor offerings and serious gamers, who are
our ?serious enthusiasts?, wanting a high-end system, sporting a P-III
or an Athlon, with extensive add-ins.
Mobile Users: remain a generation or more behind the
users. Mobile P-II and Celeron systems are currently available at
up to 400 MHz, while K6-2 models are available at speeds up to 380 MHz
at considerably lower cost.
By this time next year, expect the spread between
top-end and middle
and low-end machines to increase again?only partly due to a difference
in processor speeds. At the top, we expect to see technologies such as
200 MHz bus (to be pioneered in later Athon systems), and super-fast
expensive RAMBUS memory (pioneered on Intel systems). In the mid-range,
we?ll see processor speed that?s one notch lower, combined with a
bus and more conventional memory?but still offering a lot of
for quite a bit less money. And at the bottom, expect to continue to
systems hovering around $1000, with more or less 400 MHz processors,
finally 64 megs of RAM.
And of course, differentiate your systems with
sure to offer a range of video and storage options. In particular, the
enthusiast market is prepared to pay a premium for the currently
3D video adapter, DVD, CD-RW (perhaps both in the same machine), and