Intel Readies 64-Bit Pentiums

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Battling back against AMD's increasingly popular Athlon 64 processor, Intel is poised to bring 64-bit computing to its desktop CPU lineup when it unveils its P4 6XX series. The processor family could be announced as early as later this month.

"The 6XX is a follow-on product to the Pentium 4 Prescott family," says Willy Agatstein, general manager of Intel's reseller products group. "It has an 800-MHz front-side bus, 2 MB of on-die Level 2 cache and EM64T technology. In addition, it has a number of enhanced power-management features, which allows you to get the latest performance, but be able to do it at reduced power."

Interestingly, the 6XX parts won't be Intel's first 64-bit Pentiums, though they will be the first to be broadly available to resellers and consumers. Last summer, Intel quietly began shipping to IBM an OEM version of a Pentium 4 Prescott processor equipped with 64-bit instruction-set extensions. The device was used in an IBM BladeCenter blade server.

Though the new 6XXs will have a beefier cache to boost performance, folding in the 64-bit capability wasn't much of a technical challenge. More than a year ago, at an analyst's meeting for the business community, Intel president Paul Otellini revealed that Intel was building its 64-bit instruction-set extensions into all its Prescott-class processors, but that it wasn't turning the feature on. Otellini said it was holding off on enabling the extensions until Microsoft was ready to release a 64-bit version of its Windows XP operating system.

The 64-bit release of Windows XP still isn't officially available, but it appears to be wending its way toward shipment. A second beta version was recently made available to developers by Microsoft. Though Microsoft and Intel aren't commenting, talk has been circulating that this will be the final beta before an imminent official release.

Compared with some previous processor rollouts, Intel appears to be soft-pedaling the 6XX. That could be because it doesn't want to overemphasize 64-bit instruction-set extensions, since competitor AMD kicked off that category nearly two a years ago when it debuted its AMD64 architecture and companion extensions. These are implemented in AMD's Opteron server and Athlon 64 desktop processors. Intel's extensions, which were first used in a Xeon server processor and are called EM64T, are compatible with AMD's extensions.

According to Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research in Cave Creek, Ariz., the extensions won't be a big differentiator.

"It's going to be a moot point, because most likely by midyear both companies will be offering complete coverage in the [desktop] performance segment," he says. "It is a significant advance, however. It's not going to get used a lot initially. It's much more important for establishing an infrastructure for when the applications will be using it a year or two down the road."

The Intel 6XX processors are single-core devices. Intel's first multicore CPUs are expected to be announced later this year.

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