Intel Changes Prescott Plans

Any expectations that Intel's next-generation Prescott processor will make an appearance in 2003 are fading fast as the year winds to a close. The chip had been expected to make its debut in the fourth quarter, but only a select number of PC manufacturers will get their hands on Intel's first 90-nanometer processor before 2004.

Prescott is an update to the current Pentium 4 processor. It will come with up to 1MB of Level 2 cache (double the cache of current Pentium 4 chips), and will also contain 13 new instructions that improve the performance of video encoding and floating-point applications, among other things.

In the first half of the 2003, at the spring Intel Developer Forum and the company's spring analyst meeting, Intel executives indicated that Prescott would ship this year. But as the second half of the year rolled around, Intel changed its guidance to say that it would ship the chip "for revenue" in the fourth quarter.

Prescott is currently in production at Intel's fabs, says George Alfs, an Intel spokesperson. The Santa Clara, California, company will record revenue from shipments of Prescott in the fourth quarter, he says.

Power Problems?

The slip in the launch date can probably be attributed to problems that Intel has experienced in supplying enough power to compensate for increased performance and current leakage, which required additional time to make sure the company could support the higher thermal characteristics of Prescott, says Kevin Krewell, senior editor of the Microprocessor Report.

Normally when chip companies roll out new process technologies to their manufacturing lines, they benefit from a decrease in power consumption for a new chip that runs at the same clock speed as a chip based on the older technology, Krewell says.

In this case, it's not clear that Intel will see a decrease in power consumption, in part due to problems associated with transistor leakage at 90 nanometers, he says. As processors get smaller, the widths of the wires inside the chip shrink to the point where electrons can escape through the interconnects and leak out as heat.

Higher Speeds

There is a direct relationship between faster clock speeds and greater power consumption. The current performance leader in Intel's mainstream processor line is the 3.2-GHz Pentium 4 processor, which is designed to consume a maximum of 82 watts.

The Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition consumes 92 watts, but is available in limited quantities only.

Since Prescott also has more cache and more instructions than the current Pentium 4 generation, "they've spent their power savings" that would accompany the jump to 90 nanometers, says Dean McCarron, principal analyst with Mercury Research.

The additional performance requirements, coupled with increases in current leakage, make for a chip that will probably consume more power than previous-generation chips at equal clock speeds, Krewell says.

At the fall Intel Developer Forum, the company warned motherboard makers that they would need to design boards sold in 2004 to handle a maximum thermal envelope of 110 watts, Krewell says. Intel President and Chief Operating Officer Paul Otellini has said that the company plans to hit 4 GHz with the Prescott chips by the end of 2004, a target that will likely require that much power, he says.

Prescott would therefore be expected to launch at around 90 watts with a clock speed of 3.4 GHz, Krewell says. Intel will probably want to launch a chip at a higher clock speed than the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition to ensure it has a new performance leader, he says.

Complete Redesign?

To support these higher power requirements, Intel has likely had to redesign the infrastructure to accommodate the need for larger amounts of power, Krewell says. A whole series of components such as chip sets and motherboards must be designed with the maximum power requirements in mind, and that takes time, he says.

Otellini said during Intel's third-quarter earnings conference call that the company had changed the thermal envelope for Prescott to allow future chips to run at higher clock speeds than it had originally anticipated would be possible. But greater-than-expected amounts of leakage from the 90-nanometer process could also have contributed to the change, Krewell says.

It takes about six weeks for a vendor to get a PC ready to ship in large volumes once Intel has delivered the processor, McCarron says. So if the company began shipping the processor in December, Intel and PC vendors would be ready to launch the chip by January or February, he says.

In addition to the 3.4-GHz chip, Intel will likely introduce slower chips with the Prescott architecture to take advantage of cost savings associated with the smaller die of a 90-nanometer chip, McCarron says. Along with the move to 90 nanometers, Intel has almost completed a shift to 300-millimeter wafers, which allows the company to cut more chips from a single wafer and reduce its cost per chip.

Intel plans to aggressively introduce Prescott in 2004, with the chip accounting for 60 percent of the company's desktop processors by the second quarter, Otellini said in November. To meet that target, Intel would probably introduce Prescott chips at the same price and clock speeds as current Pentium 4 processors, McCarron says.

PC vendors and distributors would select the Prescott chip with its higher performance and better margins over current Pentium 4 chips, especially if they wouldn't have to pay a premium, McCarron says.

To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon