Intel stumbles

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, November, 1999

Computers keep getting faster and faster, right?

So how come a computer built with a 600 MHz CPU doesn?t feel 50% faster than one built with a 400 KHz processor?

The problem is that not all parts of the computer improve at the same rate?hard drives and memory have gotten faster, but they don?t always keep pace with the improvements in processor speed. In particular, the speed with which the processor communicates with the RAM hasn?t kept pace?and if the processor can?t get the information it needs, no matter how fast it is, it will be forced to hang around and wait.

My 1996 Pentium-166 communicated with its RAM over a 66 MHz bus. My 1998 Pentium II-400 uses a 100 MHz bus?50% faster, while the CPU is running 233% faster. And that new P-III-600 will still be using that 100 MHz bus.

Intel wants to speed this up. But it?s having problems getting the industry to do things its way.

While increases in CPU speed gets all the publicity, the key here is chipsets?the companion chips that support the CPU on the motherboard. Intel?s 820 chipset (code named ?Camino?), scheduled for release at the end of September, would have been the first from the company to support a 133 MHz bus and Rambus memory (aka RDRAM or DRDRAM?Direct Rambus DRAM), replacing the company?s current 440BX design, with its 100 MHz bus and SDRAM memory. Until recently, Intel, a major manufacturer of chipsets as well as CPUs, had suggested that all its future designs would support Rambus memory only. Despite Intel?s clout, events just haven?t gone its way this time.

While Rambus promises better performance than SDRAM, it is also more expensive?estimates range from 20% to about double the cost. Price-sensitive OEMs understandably shy away from implementing changes that will increase their product?s cost. RAM manufacturers, as well, are reporting problems getting high enough yield of Rambus memory chips, and there are concerns that RDRAM from different manufacturers may not be compatible. There have even been suggestions that RDRAM is susceptible to hard-to-detect errors.

Word on the street is that Intel has been forced to scale back its projections for the new chipset?while initially, they expected it would soon account for 20-25% of their production, resistance to the product from OEMs has forced them to drop that estimate to 5%, according to Ashok Kumar, an analyst with U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray, quoted in a September 21st report on CNET.COM.

As well Intel has backed down from its plans for a Rambus-only future, announcing in early September that they would also support 133 MHz SDRAM in a future a chipset design

Taiwanese manufacturer Via Technologies is already offering a 133MHz SDRAM-compatible chipset, the Apollo Pro133, while Intel?s comparable product is not yet ready?even in advance of an official standard for SDRAM-133. Computer manufacturer, Micron, for one, has chosen to go with Via?s chipset for its upcoming high-end models, citing savings of US$200-300 on the ultimate price tag. Rambus memory will be available in 600, 700, and 800 MHz versions, with some estimates suggesting that systems using the 820 chipset and 128 megs of 800 MHz Rambus memory could end up as much as US$500 more than otherwise comparable SDRAM-equipped systems.

Intel admits that many users would, in fact, see little difference between models using SDRAM instead of the higher-performance, more expensive Rambus variety, but that on more intensive computing tasks, such as image editing, the differences would become apparent. At the August Intel?s Developer Forum, InQuest Market Research?s Bert McComas reported, according to a September 16th CNET.COM report, that Rambus systems were, in fact, 25% slower than SDRAM systems running standard Office 2000 tasks?due to increased memory latency involved in RDRAM. His analysis has been questioned, but there seems no doubt that many customers would see little immediate benefits from switching from SDRAM to Rambus systems?certainly not US$200-500 worth.

While choosing to ignore Intel?s 820 chipset, Micron reports more interest in next year?s 840 model (aka ?Carmel?)?by offering two channels of communication between the CPU and the memory bus, it promises to double the bandwidth, and significantly improve performance. However, Micron (which is a major RAM manufacturer as well as a computer OEM) is reportedly also working on 166 MHz DDR SDRAM, which by doubling the current bandwidth could theoretically outperform even 800 MHz RDRAM

Ironically, while Rambus was being touted by Intel as the ultimate performance enhancer for expensive, high-end PCs, the one place the company?s products have found widespread acceptance is with inexpensive game systems. Nintendo?s popular Nintendo-64 systems have been built around Rambus memory since debuting several years ago.

As if OEM reluctance to adopt the 820 wasn?t enough, close to the September release date, a new problem arose with the 820 designs. Intel was forced to announce the chipset could only reliably support 2 memory slots? a 3-slot motherboard could lose data, even if the third slot is empty. This problem dropped the maximum allowable RAM by 50% to 512 megabytes (Future, higher capacity Rambus modules would raise this to 1 gig).

At the time of the announcement, somewhere between 100,000 and a million motherboards had already been produced with three slots, and will need to be scrapped. The problem was discovered in testing production-line motherboards.

Perhaps as a result, on September 24th, Intel decided to delay the announced September 27th release of the 820 chipset indefinitely. This was the second delay?last February, the company pushed back the release from June to September.

As well as supporting Rambus, the 820 chipset also supports 4x AGP video and the ATA66 drive interface, both standards that are double what is supported on the current 440BX chipset?there are concerns that a lack of support for the 820 will delay widespread implementation of these two performance-enhancing standards. Intel will continue supporting the 440BX for the immediate future, building support for the older design into its upcoming processor releases, as well as pushing it for notebook designs. It?s been suggested that 440BX models will remain in production at least through the end of next year.

As Microsoft has also learned, Intel has discovered that just because you?re the industry leader doesn?t mean you always get things your way.

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