Intel's dual-core strategy for mobile processors became a little clearer last week, but questions remain about the company's plans for bringing dual-core designs to its desktop and low-end server chips.
Intel shared some details with attendees about its plans to move to dual-core chip designs by the end of next year, but not as many as some had hoped. The Yonah mobile processor was publically discussed for the first time at the show. It will come with two processor cores that might be based on a slightly different architecture than the one currently used in the Pentium M.
Intel general manager Anand Chandrasekher said Yonah would be designed "from the ground up" for mobility, the same phrase used to describe the initial Banias Pentium M processor. Banias played a pivotal role in Intel's shift from a design strategy based on processor speed to a strategy where power consumption became a central focus.
Chandrasekher and other Intel mobile executives declined to comment on specific architectural details during the show, saying it was too early to release details on a product that isn't expected for around a year.
Yonah will feature an improvement in the IPC (instruction per clock) ratio of the current Pentium M processor, said Mooly Eden, director of marketing for the mobile platforms group. Prior to the introduction of the Pentium M, Intel had focused on regularly increasing the clock frequency of its chips, or the number of clock cycles in a certain period of time, in order to improve performance.
The Banias core changed that philosophy as Intel realised that power consumption and leakage would become more of an issue as transistors grew smaller, Eden said. A significant increase in the amount of work done in each clock cycle was required to generate performance increases, he said.
Intel believes Yonah will have the same impact on the mobile computing world that Banias had, said Stephanie Silvester, an Intel spokeswoman. Intel has committed to releasing Yonah in 2005 and will follow that launch with Napa, an update to the chipset and wireless chip that accompany the Pentium M in Intel's Centrino branding strategy.
The desktop and server groups were not ready to share even vague details at this conference about the dual-core futures of the Pentium 4 and Xeon processors. Intel general manager Bill Siu spent the majority of his keynote address on usage models such as the digital home and the digital office, showcasing several interesting applications such as a sophisticated video conferencing system. But he did not address how Intel plans to deliver the processing power needed to make those visions a reality other than to say that dual-core processors would help make it happen.
Siu almost offhandedly wrapped up the digital office portion of his keynote by revealing that Intel was using a desktop based on an "engineering prototype" of a dual-core desktop chip during the demonstration of the video conferencing application. In a question and answer session, he declined to talk about any details about that prototype chip.
Sources have indicated that Intel plans to keep the NetBurst architecture for the dual-core versions of the Pentium 4 and Xeon processors, but the company still has not confirmed those plans. The thinking is that Intel wouldn't want to spring two major changes on server manufacturers by introducing dual-core designs and a new architecture, but Intel has said almost nothing publically about it.
Given Intel's string of launch problems this year, it makes sense that the company would hold off on publically committing to a design or strategy until it is completely sure it wants to go down that road, said Ben Lynch, a financial analyst with Deutsche Bank Securities.
That's the way Intel handled product launches for many years until recently, and it appears the company has returned to that practice, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst with Mercury Research.
Still, attendees were left wondering how Intel is planning to make all of its digital home and office visions become reality. It's clear that Intel is now focused on bringing more to the table than just raw processor performance, McCarron said. "We have been on this track that the value-add is processor speed for almost 20 years. Now it's like, 'how do we extend PCs into new markets, into segments where they might not have been before?'"
Intel's entertainment PCs are one clear example of the company's new strategy that the entire platform is becoming more important that just the processor, from desktops to notebooks to servers, McCarron said. Enhancing those platforms will require additional processing power, and Intel and the rest of the semiconductor industry have decided that dual-core chips are the way to achieve that performance, he said.