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A new Pentium! Come on down!

Amidst all the bells and whistles, Intel has launched its much-touted Pentium 4 processor. But at a relatively high cost and requiring a new chipset, demand for Intel's newest offering remains uncertain.

The company has completely overhauled its technology, developing a new microarchitecture known as NetBurst to power the 32-bit processors. Five years in the making, the P4 uses Hyper Pipelined Technology in which software instructions are dealt with in 20 stages rather than the 10 found in previous Intel offerings, providing the key to the processor's scalability. The unit's streaming extension means integers and floating calculations are doubled, according to the vendor. The P4 also uses a 400MHz system bus to transfer data between the processor and the main memory.

To support all this new technology, Intel has released its new 850 chipset, optimised for the NetBurst architecture.

Local assemblers such as Ipex, Todaytech and Optima are already offering P4 systems. Intel is also shipping boxed P4 processors with 128 RDRAM, a D850GB board and a platform integration kit through its Intel Premier Providers Program for integrators.

"The Pentium 4 is designed for where we see the Internet moving," Intel Australia general manager David Bolt said last week, when the P4 was launched worldwide. "This is the first launch of new microarchitecture for Intel in four or five years. We have designed it for the next several years enhancement in clock speeds - without this change we are just going to be bottlenecked.

"In the evolution of computing we have noticed the fundamental technology is based on the innovation of the platform. A large part of the Internet's growth is because of the pervasiveness of the technology."

Lately Intel has found itself playing second fiddle to AMD's speedier Athlon series. Combined with ongoing product shortages, product recalls and a raging memory technology debate, its channel has been feeling a bit hard done by in the processor department.

Intel is keen not to repeat past supply mistakes with the new processor in its bid to undertake one of the fastest ramps in the company's history. The company predicts the P4 will take over from its PIII offerings by the second half of next year, with around half of the performance-based systems using P4 chips.

"It is true we have been playing catch-up in [the supply] area," Bolt admitted. "But we don't anticipate any challenges to meet demand. We will supply the system through the local channel as well as through international players, as well as the chipsets. We believe we have anticipated the ramp of this thing and have plenty of product."

And despite its commitment to Rambus, Intel will bring out an SDRAM product next year. The industry can expect to see SDRAM versions in the future and Intel is also working on DDR support, Bolt said.

"The reason [we went with RDRAM] is very much technical. There have been lots of questions and religious wars about memory technology. We don't want to go into that. At this stage the only product on the market which is mature enough to release is RDRAM."

Bolt believes the first adopters of the new technology will be PC enthusiasts and consumers. However, the P4 is pricey - in 1000 unit quantities the chip and parts cost $US819 and $644 for the respective 1.5 and 1.4 GHz offerings. This price point will ramp through to mainstream prices next year, according to the company. Intel also plans to transition the process technology from 0.18 to 0.13 microns.

The company maintains it hasn't forgotten its PIII processors, and will launch promotions based on its price point early next year.

"The PIII product is very well priced in the market today - retailers call it sweet-spot pricing," Bolt said. The PIII and P4 processors will coexist throughout next year as different organisations determine their upgrade schedules.

"The business environment has its own cycle. Some companies wait for the technology to reach a certain price, others want to get in on the early cycle to give themselves the longest window. Others are purely focused on price and will wait until the end to upgrade."

Bolt said search engines and applications would secure the most advantage from the NetBurst technology, particularly those that manage data with programs running in the background. The new processor has also been designed for the high-end graphics, such as in the creative art industry and gaming.

In benchmarking tests, the P4 processor fails to outrun its PIII and Athlon counterparts running office applications. The benefits of the technology are realised in multimedia, such as M-PEG movies, and games such as Quake 3, where performance is significantly boosted with increased clock speed.

"It doesn't look like great value for money at the moment in terms of relative price and performance, but after the P4 moves to a 0.13 micron process and clock speeds well above 1.6GHz, it is likely to be very competitive indeed," said Aldis Ozols, technical journalist with ARN's sister publication PC World, an author of the magazine's monthly processor report, Tech.files.

"Those who buy this at the launch will be those who want the very latest thing on the block. It has the potential to be a hot processor within the next six months, but at the moment it is very expensive."

It is also rumoured Intel will change its socket design within the next six months, thereby stonewalling upgrades on the product.

"The real problem for the P4 at the moment is that the Athlon is faster with DDR memory. But I think Intel will gain the advantage in the next six months as clock speeds increase."