Say "No" to Celeron

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, June 1998

Up until now, CPU super-giant Intel has had a fairly simple strategy?every six months or so, release a significantly faster version of their core CPU technology. At the same time, drop the price of previous versions of the CPU. Every couple of years, release a new generation CPU.

As a result, new CPU models were aimed at the high-end, with prices to match. Older versions would appear in progressively less expensive computers, serving broader markets.

But last winter?s explosion of low-cost computers caught Intel by surprise, along with much of the industry. To a large extent, these models, accounting for as much as 40% of the consumer market, were powered by new-generation CPUs, designed from scratch for low-end machines by Intel?s competitors such as AMD?s K6 processor. Despite a TV ad-campaign pushing the ?Intel Inside? logo, customers were happy to use something else inside if the price was right.

The result is a strategy switch by Intel. Instead of a single CPU line, aiming to cover the entire breadth of the market, Intel is now offering different processors for different market niches?a processor line for mainstream business models, one for high-end servers, and another for low-cost, consumer markets.

On April 15th, Intel unveiled the first Celeron processors, its new model aiming for the low-cost mass-market. It?s a 266 MHz model, based on Intel?s Pentium-II, and like that processor, designed in a cartridge to fit into Intel?s proprietary Slot-1.

When Intel moved from the Pentium?s Socket-7 design to the P-II?s cartridge design, the idea was that this allowed  a high speed connection between the CPU and Level-2 cache ram, necessary for good performance. (The earlier Pentium-Pro included a large cache right on the CPU, but this design proved expensive to manufacture. The P-II?s cartridge offered somewhat lower performance for its cache than the Pro, but promised lower cost. And the Slot-1 design is owned by Intel; competitors? CPUs need not apply).

While Celeron is presumably named after celerity, an obscure synonym for speed, the design keeps the Slot-1 design, but drops the cache RAM.

The result is a processor that compared badly to low-cost models from Intel?s competitors, and even to the slower Pentium MMX models from Intel that it is meant to replace. PC Magazine, for example, benchmarked a Celeron-266 system from Compaq, and found that it ran slower than a typical MMX-233 (with 512 kb of L2 cache), and in fact, barely outperformed an MMX-166. And while Intel had earlier claimed that Celeron models would benefit from their P-II heritage with improved multimedia performance, the system tested offered poor 3D performance. Forget about selling these systems to the game-playing segment of the home market!

Moreover, while they share Slot-1 designs, the motherboards on many Celeron systems will not be able to handle standard Pentium-II cartridges, making them non-upgradeable. By using Slot-1, however, these systems are forced to use motherboard chipsets (in this case, the new 440EX) from Intel.

In order to keep the price low, the 440EX is limited in other ways. No multi-processor support, and only two slots for DIMM memory strips?supporting a maximum of 256 megs of RAM. Support for a maximum of three PCI slots limits system expandability (by comparison, the common 440LX design for Pentium IIs supports double the RAM and five PCI slots).

While Celeron, with wholesale pricing at $155(USD), is aimed squarely at the low-end consumer market, users will be better served with models based on AMD?s K6 (with new models expected to reach 300 and 350 MHz this year), Cyrix?s MediaGX (moving up to 266 MHz  and beyond and offering integrated multimedia), or the new Centaur processor from Integrated Device Technologies. All three are based on the older Socket-7 technology used by Intel in its Pentium and MMX models. Currently, Intel?s competitors account for about 15% of the market, which is expected to rise to at least 20% this year as the trio work out problems that limited production in 1997.
Many of the big-name computer manufacturers have announced Celeron-based systems, but some, such as Compaq, are also offering MediaGX or K6-based systems. IBM is ignoring Celeron entirely, using the K6 in its low-end offerings. (IBM is manufacturing K6s for AMD). Intel fans, instead, are looking forward to the next generation of Celeron, code-named Mendocino and due in late 1998, expected to put a cache back onto the cartridge, as a way to offer reasonably-respectable performance.

The best response to Celeron (at least for now) is to just say ?No!?. Nevertheless, at the same April 15th product launch, Intel debuted another product line worth following up on.

P-II models running at 350 MHz and 400 MHz were unveiled, at prices of US$609 and $800 respectively. A 450 MHz model is expected in July. The CPU speeds represent an increase over the previous 333 MHz models, but more significant is the motherboard chipset that they?ll run on. The 440BX chipset runs at 100 MHz, a significant increase over the 66 MHz used in existing models. Of course, the Intel-competitors are expected to respond with their own 100 MHz designs, later this year, and the betting is that their Pentium-like models will see even more performance improvement from the faster bus than Intel?s P-II designs.

These 100 MHz bus designs not only allow the CPU to run faster, but they speeds up operations across the system. This won?t be the end, of course. At last March?s WinHEC conference, keynote speaker Michael Slater predicted 200 MHz system busses by 1999, running processors at speeds up to 750 MHz. According to Slater, even the new, faster 100 MHz bus will have a hard time keeping up with upcoming RAM designs, such as Rambus RDRAM.

While you can safely pass up on Celeron, migrate other systems to 100 MHz designs as soon as possible.


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan