CHIP-SET GLITCH AT ROOT OF PENTIUM 4 DELAY

October 6, 2000

COMMERCIAL NEWS

San Diego, CALIF. — Ken Popovitch reports that Intel Corp. has pushed back the launch of its Pentium 4, originally slated for the day before Halloween, citing a spookily familiar problem – trouble involving a Rambus-based chip set.

The new processor, recently set to be released on Oct. 30, has been moved back at least three weeks, according to industry sources. Intel blamed the delay on a glitch involving the new Rambus-based 850 chip set, code-named Tehama, that will be packaged with the Pentium 4, they said.

The delay apparently has irritated some of Intel’s biggest customers. “Several PC OEMs have complained to us that the P4 will not be in boxes for Christmas,” said Jonathan Joseph, a market analyst with Salomon Smith Barney Inc.

“The P4 delay would not be a big issue but for two things,” Joseph continued. “No. 1, the PIII is hidebound and is not yielding well above the 1GHz range – remember the recent 1.13GHz recall? And No. 2, Advanced Micro Devices has now passed Intel in average speed distribution, we believe, and is rapidly ramping its own K7 products.”

Word of the Pentium 4 delay comes after Intel disclosed Friday that it was scrapping plans for next year’s release of the Timna, a new processor that would have featured integrated graphics. The final blow for the long-delayed Timna, originally planned for release this year, came when Intel realized it would again have to delay the chip’s release due to continuing problems in redesigning a memory component for the Rambus-based 820 chip set.

In explaining the Pentium 4 delay, Intel assured PC makers that it has identified the problem involving the 850 chip set and has found a work-around solution that should enable the company to bring the new processor to market around Nov. 20, according to sources.

Intel’s admission of problems with the chip set confirms early word that the 850 was proving troublesome, according to Joseph. “There is plenty of industry buzz that the P4 supporting chip set is buggy,” he said.

In July, Intel officials backed off their previously held stance of offering the P4 only with RDRAM (Rambus DRAM), telling PC makers that they would offer a P4 chip set designed for SDRAM (synchronous DRAM), possibly in the second quarter of next year. PC manufacturers have pressured Intel to offer the SDRAM alternative to make their P4-based systems more cost-competitive.

The 850 chip set packaged with the Pentium 4 will play a key role in helping the new processor – set to debut at 1.4GHz and 1.5GHz – achieve higher performance levels than its predecessor.

In particular, the new chip set features a 400MHz front side bus (the speed at which the processor communicates with other elements in the computer). By comparison, Intel’s best-selling current chip set, the 815, only offers a 133MHz front side bus.

Yet the 850 chip set is noteworthy for another reason as well, in that it is designed to utilize RDRAM, a relatively expensive memory technology backed by Intel that has yet to take hold in the PC market.

While Intel has repeatedly asserted that RDRAM offers greater performance than the less expensive and currently more popular SDRAM, the company has also been plagued by a number of problems involving the new technology.

The launch of Intel’s first chip set to feature RDRAM, the 820, was delayed last year after Intel discovered problems when it added Rambus chips to three slots on the chip sets. Intel’s solution was to limit RDRAM to only two slots, essentially reducing the amount of memory users could add to the system.

In February, Intel disclosed that it had scrapped plans for three server motherboards based on the 820 and another Rambus-based chip set, the 840. At the time, Intel cited problems involving the use of a Memory Translator Hub that was designed to enable the chip sets to communicate with SDRAM. In particular, Intel said that the use of the MTH and error correction coding utilized in high-end workstations and servers could produce errors.

But the biggest blow came in May, when Intel announced it would recall about 1 million chip sets because of problems involving the MTH. In order to resolve the problem, Intel said it would replace customers’ SDRAM with more expensive RDRAM, a move that could potentially cost the company several hundred million dollars, analysts said.

While none of the problems have been directly attributed to the technology behind Rambus itself, Intel’s difficulties in working with RDRAM have likely tainted the industry’s perception of Rambus, which has been hurt by previous short supplies and its continued premium pricing.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the publisher or staff of HPCwire.

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