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, especially 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 upwards, through 500, 550, 600, to 650 MHz. Even low-end models like Intel?s Celeron have been announced with 550 MHz speeds?several notches faster than last year?s top-end models.

The rapid pace of change has made it harder for Intel?s competitors to keep up?Centaur dropped out of the race, and Cyrix was nearly shut down 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 like IBM and Compaq, Intel is keeping the pressure on the company by dropping prices across its product line, and especially in its higher-end CPUs.

Intel is moving production over to its Coppermine technology?building 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 reduced heat and power requirements. At the same time, the smaller size frees up 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 generation 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 year, the high-end Xeon processors will be moved to this technology. At the same 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 models 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 MHz 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 attach the CPU to the socket have been moved from edge of the package to the center, resulting in a shorter electrical path for improved performance and cooling. The improved technology should let next Spring?s Celeron?s outperform this summer?s much more expensive P-IIIs.

Newest P-III designs will be available both in the current cartridge 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 performance 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 this:

Workstations: only a minority of users?Web and 3D graphic content creators and serious gamers will require 500+ MHz P-III and Athlon-based systems. 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 the basic server market. (Clone-maker Future Power has announced a dual-processor, overclocked Celeron system but this is really aimed at the Enthusiast/High-end Gamer market). Currently, Athlon systems outperform P-III systems running 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 insisting 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 justify systems built with top of the line processors?Celeron and AMD K6-2 processors provide 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 have tended to insist on ?Intel Inside? and a name brand, but this may be changing.

Home Users: divide up between users whose needs can be met with virtually any of the current processor offerings and serious gamers, who are really 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 top-end desktop users. Mobile P-II and Celeron systems are currently available at speeds 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 but expensive RAMBUS memory (pioneered on Intel systems). In the mid-range, we?ll see processor speed that?s one notch lower, combined with a slower bus and more conventional memory?but still offering a lot of performance for quite a bit less money. And at the bottom, expect to continue to see systems hovering around $1000, with more or less 400 MHz processors, and finally 64 megs of RAM.

And of course, differentiate your systems with different peripherals?be sure to offer a range of video and storage options. In particular, the enthusiast market is prepared to pay a premium for the currently hottest 3D video adapter, DVD, CD-RW (perhaps both in the same machine), and more.

Search WWW Search www.zisman.ca

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