Intel planning shift toward mobile designs for chips

Over the next few years, Intel will shift its desktop processor architecture away from the power-hungry design that fuels the current Pentium 4 processor to a more power-efficient design that builds on the success of the Pentium M chip, sources familiar with Intel's plans said this week.

At some point in 2005 or 2006 Intel will begin to phase out desktop processors based on the NetBurst architecture of the Pentium 4. The Banias architecture designed by Intel researchers in Israel will instead become the future platform for Intel's desktop and mobile processors as the company shifts to dualcore designs, sources said.

This transition should be underway by 2006, when Intel introduces the Merom processor. Merom is scheduled to appear after the release of Tejas, Intel's next Pentium 4 processor, and Yonah, the successor to the Dothan Pentium M chip that will be launched on Monday.

An Intel spokeswoman declined to comment on unannounced products.

After years of ever-increasing frequency and transistor counts, the semiconductor industry has realized that in order to continue to shrink chip sizes and increase performance, it needs to develop chips that sip, instead of guzzle, power.

Enterprises are starting to understand how much they are spending on power to keep a company full of computers up and running. Home PC users are said to be gravitating toward what Intel calls entertainment PCs, or small and quiet PCs that sit in the living room rather than the office and control a home media network.

Notebooks have had to live with power considerations for far longer than desktops or servers. This led Intel to develop the Pentium M processor, first known by its Banias code name.

The Banias architecture was said to be a combination of the power-efficiency of Intel's Pentium III chip and the performance of the Pentium 4 processor. Notebooks based on the chip have garnered excellent reviews for both their battery life and system performance.

The Israeli design team that developed the Pentium M took power consumption into account with every design decision, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64.

Power-efficient chips allow PC designers to free up space within desktops that had been allocated for sophisticated cooling equipment, and either add additional features or reduce the size of the PC. Many PC analysts and vendors feel that consumers won't put PCs in their living rooms unless they eliminate the loud cooling fans required to maintain optimal performance in current desktops.

Intel's own engineering team uses a number of small form factor PCs from Shuttle, a source said. The Shuttle PCs are smaller and quieter than traditional desktops, but could become even quieter with a more efficient processor.

A chip design that does a good job of managing power consumption also allows for the development of dual-core processors for desktops and notebooks. By adding two processor cores on a single chip, designers can increase performance without having to increase the frequency -- and therefore power consumption -- of either core.

Intel's plan makes sense in that it would be difficult to place two Netburst cores on the same die, said Kevin Krewell, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report. The Banias cores are much smaller and more power efficient, and are easier to incorporate into dual-core designs without increasing the size of the chip, he said.

IBM and Sun Microsystems have already released dual-core processors for the server world, and Intel will follow with dual-core Itanium and Xeon server chips in 2005. But server processors are a premium product where die size isn't as important a consideration, Krewell said.

Yonah will be Intel's first dual-core processor for notebooks. It's unclear right now if Yonah or Merom will be the chip that Intel shifts into the desktop product line, but future Intel desktop processors will be based on the Pentium M architecture present in both those chips.

Intel will need to add support for SSE3 extensions and hyperthreading technology in order to ensure the new Pentium M-based chips can handle the increased performance requirements of desktops and entertainment PCs. Dothan is not expected to feature either of those technologies.

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Tom Krazit

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