1999 to be lively year for PC chips

Next year is shaping up as a lively one for the PC chip industry. AMD has unveiled its forthcoming K7 processor, which is set to go head to head with Intel's Katmai processor in the performance desktop PC market early next year. Meanwhile, newcomer Rise Technology has described the workings of a new processor aimed squarely at the low-end desktop and mobile PC space, Cyrix has detailed new designs and National Semiconductor plans to introduce its MediaPC chip 'PC on a chip' in June 1999.

Next year is shaping up as a lively one for the PC chip industry.

At the Microprocessor Forum, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) has unveiled architectural details of its forthcoming K7 processor, which is set to go head to head with Intel's Katmai processor in the performance desktop PC market when the two chips are released early next year.

Meanwhile, newcomer Rise Technology described the workings of a new processor it plans to release later this quarter aimed squarely at the low-end desktop and mobile PC space. Centaur Technology and Cyrix also detailed new designs, and have new processors in the works targeted at that low-end segment.

For users, AMD's and Intel's designs will lead to another wave of high performance PCs to choose from next year, while the other firms will provide low-cost chips that enable PC makers to continue to sell systems at rock-bottom prices, analysts say.

For Intel, which provides about 80%of all the PC microprocessors sold today, the new chips will likely also mean a further erosion of its market share, says Michael Slater, editorial director with Microdesign Resources Inc., which sponsors Microprocessor Forum.

Five companies currently offer x86 Intel-type processors, Slater says, though that number could climb to as many as seven or eight by this time next year, he predicts.

AMD's K7 will be the successor to the company's K6 family of processors, and the chip maker has said K7 will debut at clock speeds starting at 500MHz. While its K6-2 design already has made headway against Intel in the sub-$US1,500 PC space, AMD's K7 will be aimed at higher performance machines where Intel is currently king, Slater says

"The K7 is the only part that is going to challenge Intel on performance. It will be K7 vs. Katmai in 1999," he says.

Among the advancements in the K7 processor is a higher speed "system bus" that operates at 200MHz, and is designed to allow the chip to communicate more quickly with other parts of a computer, AMD officials said. The chip also includes AMD's 3D!Now multimedia technology, which was featured in the K6-2 and is designed to improve the performance of applications that use 3-D rendering, audio and video.

Intel's Katmai processor will also sport additional 3-D-boosting multimedia extensions in the form of its Katmai New Instructions (KNI), details of which were unveiled at the Intel Developer Forum last month. The chip is also expected to debut starting at clock speeds of 500MHz, according to Intel.

In multimedia-intensive software applications that have been optimized to take advantage of features in KNI, Intel's chip will likely offer better performance than the K7, Slater says. But for running general business applications, AMD's K7 -- which has a newer and more complex architecture than that of Katmai -- will likely prove faster.

K7 will also support multiprocessing capabilities -- a first for the company that will allow it to compete with Intel in the higher end workstation and server markets, AMD officials say.

But performance isn't all that it takes to do well in the chip business. AMD's history of bringing new microprocessors to market has been spotty, and the K7 is its most complex design yet, Slater said. In addition, AMD must convince the firms who make the motherboards and chipsets that work with its chips to support its new design.

"If AMD can execute on the K7, it could well put a dent in Intel's share of the performance desktop market. How big that dent is will depend on how well AMD follows through with its plans," Slater said.

For smaller chip makers, meanwhile, the growing demand for very low-cost PCs has created new opportunities to distinguish their offerings with rock-bottom prices, even if they can't keep up with Intel and AMD in terms of performance, Slater says.

One such hopeful is Rise Technologies, which said today it will begin shipping its first mP6 microprocessors later this quarter. Designed from the ground up for the low cost segment, the chips will be targeted at desktop systems priced from $US1,000 down to $399, said David Lin, the company's chairman and chief executive officer.

The company also plans to release a mobile version of its chip, which by early next year could find its way into notebook computers priced as low as $800, he says.

Rise Technology's pitch is that it will bring to the low-cost market superior multimedia capabilities previously restricted to higher priced systems, allowing consumers to view video images over the Internet, play 3D games and view DVD movies. But the company is keeping mum about the clock speeds of its first offerings, and won't announce them until the Comdex trade show in November, Lin says.

The mP6 will debut with no on-chip level 2 cache memory, but Rise plans to add 256K bytes of on-chip cache with the release of its mP2 design in the first quarter of 1999, officials said.

Centaur, meanwhile, gave further details of two forthcoming versions of its WinChip architecture. Like Rise Technology, Centaur has focused heavily on reducing cost in designing its chips. "We don't offer the fastest microprocessor, but it has the lowest cost, and it's fast enough," says Glenn Henry, Centaur's president.

The Winchip 3, due for release in the first quarter next year, also focuses on improving multimedia performance, and includes AMD's 3D!Now technology, Henry says. The company plans to follow it with the WinChip 4 in 2000, which will debut with clock speeds of 500MHz and increase to about 700MHz when the company moves to a more advanced, 0.18-micron manufacturing technology, Henry said.

Meanwhile Cyrix has offered a look at the design of two chip architectures it hopes to release within the next year. The MXi, which uses its new Cayenne core, is due to debut in mid-1999 with clock speeds as fast as 400MHz, said Brian Hallah, chairman, president and CEO of parent company National Semiconductor.

In 2000, the company plans to release its M3 chip, which will be based on a completely new processor core codenamed Jalapeno, Cyrix said. Those chips will debut at 600MHz to 800MHz -- which will still leave the company lagging behind Intel and AMD, which in 2000 each plan to release chips that run as fast as 1GHz.

In addition, National Semiconductor in June 1999 plans to introduce its MediaPC chip, a so-called "PC on a chip" built around a Cyrix MediaGX processor. The device integrates on a single piece of silicon support a number of functions typically handled by separate chips, including graphics, MPEG encoding and decoding, and I/O functions, Hallah said.

Due to be introduced in versions running at 233MHz and 300MHz, the MediaPC will consume little enough power to give notebooks up to nine hours of battery life, Hallah said.

Advanced Micro Devices Inc., in Sunnyvale, California, is at http://www.amd.com/. Centaur Technologies Inc., in Austin, Texas, is at http://www.winchip.com/. Cyrix Corp., in Richardson, Texas, can be reached at http://www.cyrix.com/. Intel Corp., in Santa Clara, California, can be reached at http://www.intel.com/.

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