Intel changes chip names

SAN FRANCISCO (03/19/2004) - Intel Corp. is shifting the focus of its processor names away from megahertz. After years of driving CPU sales by promoting faster clock speeds as a measure of better performance, the chip giant on Friday announced a new processor naming scheme.

All future Intel desktop and mobile chips will receive a processor series number -- 300, 500, or 700 -- based on the chip's specific brand family. For example, on the desktop side, new Celeron chips will be the 300 series, Pentium 4s the 500 series, and the P4 Extreme Editions the 700 series. Within each series, the company will further differentiate each chip based upon its architecture, clock speed, frontside bus, cache, and other technologies.

The new naming scheme is designed to help buyers differentiate between chips based upon all of their features, not just clock speed, said Don MacDonald, vice president of Intel's sales and marketing group during a low-key press event announcing the plan. That's because megahertz is no longer the best way to pick the right processor for a specific computing job.

"A single metric cannot define everyone's measure of goodness," he said.

The numbers aren't indicative of any level of performance, "unless you redefine what performance means," MacDonald explained. "It's the sum of processor features. The focus on gigahertz isn't helpful to consumers anymore."

Mobile Muddle

Intel competitor Advanced Micro Devices Inc. introduced a processor model numbering scheme based on performance testing several years ago. AMD made the change when Intel's Pentium 4 processor began to outrun its Athlon XP chips in terms of clock speed, if not always benchmark scores.

Intel has encountered a similar problem with its mobile-targeted Pentium M chip, which runs at lower clock speeds than its Pentium 4 Mobile chip, while often offering better performance and battery life. As a result, the chip's sales have been lower than some analysts expected.

In an attempt to clear up this confusion, Pentium M chips will now carry the higher 700-series moniker, while faster clock-speed Pentium 4 Mobile CPUs will make up the 500 series. As on the desktop, mobile Celeron products will carry the 300-series brand.

Intel considered switching the naming emphasis from clock speeds to processor numbers before launching the Centrino platform in March 2003, but opted against it. However, Intel executives admit that consumers might find switching over to the new naming convention now a bit hard to follow, at least at first.

"You can expect to see some level of confusion," said Rob Crooke, vice president of the desktop platforms group. "The new products that come out will have the processor number, and the existing products will keep their current names." But since both products will still clearly carry the processor's clock speeds and other attributes, it won't be that difficult to compare, he said.

Clearing Up the Confusion?

The end result should be a less complicated decision for desktop and notebook buyers, MacDonald said.

"It is becoming a more complex set of choices," he said. The new processor numbers should make it simpler for the average consumer to differentiate between similar products. "Ultimately you know that a higher number is better than a lower number."

So, following the new naming process, today's 3.4-GHz Pentium 4 with HT Technology might become a Pentium 4 550 with HT Technology. And a similar P4 chip, running at the same speed, but with a larger L2 cache, might receive a higher processor number such as 555. (Intel hasn't officially announced any specific new processor numbers.)

Buyers should not use the numbers as a means of comparing different processor families, MacDonald said. So, for example, you shouldn't use the 330-series numbers of Celerons to compare them to the 500-series numbers of Pentium 4s.

Limited Benefits

Intel's plan to offer processor numbers makes sense, but the company's decision to make the numbers brand-specific -- instead of spread out across the chip families -- makes the end result less useful, said Peter Glaskowsky, editor-in-chief of Microprocessor Report.

"The goal should have been to make it easier to compare processors across architecture platforms," he said. For example, it would be useful to know how Intel might rate a specific Pentium M versus a specific Pentium 4 Mobile chip. Under the current system, you still can't tell at a glance which processor is necessarily better.

To Intel's credit, however, the new system is better than the company's current habit of adding suffixes to processors that share all but one or two features, he noted. For example, it is easier to choose between a P4 550 and P4 555 than between a 3.2-GHz P4 and a 3.2-GHz P4E.

Unfortunately, the new naming system does further complicate the nearly impossible task of trying to compare Intel's current chips with AMD's products, he pointed out. "There was never a good way to do that, as the clock speeds alone could mislead you."

As a result, anyone who really wants to understand the difference between Intel and AMD parts will have to look to benchmarking results, Glaskowsky said. "Intel is forcing everyone who really cares to look at the benchmarks."

Which is exactly what savvy buyers should be doing, said Intel's MacDonald. "If they care about performance, hopefully they'll read a magazine that shows benchmarks for performance and battery life."

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