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Monday, 20 November, 2000, 14:20 GMT
Intel's Pentium 4 debut
Wafer AMD
Computer chips are getting more powerful all the time
By BBC News Online internet reporter
Mark Ward

Intel has formally launched its Pentium 4 chip - the first major overhaul of its processors since 1995.

The P4 is expected to be the mainstay of Intel's product line for the next five years as it is successively upgraded and gradually becomes more powerful.

The company is hoping the new chip will help it fight off competition from old and new adversaries.

However, its success is not assured as tests of the first P4 chips have found that older processors are sometimes faster.

Some people are also asking if more powerful processors are needed in an increasingly networked world where people are turning to smaller portable devices rather than PCs to get at online information.

Chip ships

Although Intel unveiled details of the P4 chip in June, only now is the processor being made available to hardware firms.

At the launch, computer makers Compaq, Dell, IBM, Gateway and others announced they would soon be selling desktop PCs and servers using the new chips.

The P4 is not simply a faster version of earlier Intel processors.

Instead, the whole chip has been redesigned so it can make the most of increasing silicon speeds and handle the demands people are making of their PCs.

The first P4 chips run at a speed of 1.4GHz and 1.5GHz (gigahertz).

This clock speed determines how fast a chip can process instructions. The fastest chip of the former generation, the Pentium III, ran at 1.13Ghz.

Computers do what you want by translating what you are doing with a piece of software into instructions it can understand.

In general, the more instructions a chip can process in one tick of its clock, the faster it will do your bidding.

Intel says the redesigned chip should be running at 2GHz by the middle of next year, and perhaps up to 10GHz in five years' time, as the chip approaches the end of its life.

The P4 can simultaneously process twice as many instructions as its predecessor and keeps commonly used instructions close at hand so they can be reused quickly.

Competition time

Although the chip will work hard in computers, it has an even bigger job to do for Intel because the chip maker is facing more competition than ever before.

Newcomer Transmeta with its economical processors for laptops and new Athlon chips from arch-rival AMD have put pressure on Intel.

But the chip giant is hoping that the P4 will keep the competition at bay for some time.

However, tests by German computer magazine c't have found that in some applications older AMD chips perform better than the first P4s.

Some analysts have also questioned whether home PC users will need the enormous processing power of the P4 chip when they are doing nothing more than playing games, going online or managing their finances.

Intel says the P4 chip has been built to be better at handling the video and audio streams becoming more commonplace on the internet.

But many people are going online via their television, and in Europe and Japan huge numbers use mobile phones and PDAs to access online information - and many of these devices don't use Intel chips.

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