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At Intel, 'M' means modification

January 05, 2006 15:46 IST

Mooly Eden gushes like a proud papa when he talks about Intel's Pentium M chip. And well he should. The Israeli engineer was one of the 'A-team' of chip designers from Haifa that helped kick off one of the most wrenching changes in the company's history. "It's a change from speeds and feeds to customer needs," Eden says.

Several years ago, a few of the Israeli engineers approached their bosses and now-CEO Paul S Otellini about the idea of a new chip designed specifically for notebook PCs.

The aim? To deliver good performance without sacrificing on battery life or suffering the heat issues that were beginning to plague the Pentium 4 line of desktop PCs and servers.

Pentium M-based products became such a hit with consumers and businesses that Intel plans to use the chip across all its products, beginning in late 2006.

But here's a secret that few outside the chip world know. While Intel execs have said the Pentium M was 'built from the ground up' to suit their needs, it actually is a heavily modified version of the Pentium III chip Intel jettisoned back in 2000 in favor of the Pentium 4. "How do you make the Pentium 4 better? Use the Pentium III," scoff execs at rival Advanced Micro Devices.

Playing catch-up

Adds former Intel chief chip architect Bob Colwell, who helped design the Pentium Pro, the original basis of the Pentium III: "We wrote a list of 20 to 30 items we would do to improve the PIII, but just left that list lying around. To their credit, the guys in Israel picked it up. But this is no radically new chip."

Intel has a workforce of around 6,000 in Israel, making it the country's second-largest employer. It has a long history in the country: The chipmaker established its first factory, or fab, outside the United States in Jerusalem. Now, the chip designers there are playing a leading role in guiding the company's product road map.

Pentium M remains the best current option for Intel to catch up to AMD in terms of performance, without the chip getting so hot it requires fans that sound

like a refrigerator to cool it. The chip uses the Pentium III execution core and the Pentium 4 bus interface to talk to memory and other parts of the computer. It saves power by throttling the clock speed when the system is idle.

Multiple-core technology

The Pentium M runs at a lower clock speed than the Pentium 4, but with similar performance. The next iteration of the chip, new dual-core versions due out in January, is expected to use 28% less power, while improving performance by up to 68%.

The chip has its faults, however, say rivals and former Intel chip designers interviewed by BusinessWeek. "They have an inherent problem because they carried old baggage into the design," says Dan Dobberpuhl, president and CEO of P.A. Semi, a Silicon Valley chip startup that has designed a high-performance, low-power processor using technology from IBM.

Indeed, IBM could become a competitive threat to Intel. IBM's PowerPC multiple-core technology is being used in all three next-generation gaming consoles from Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. The Cell architecture, jointly owned by Sony, Toshiba, and IBM, is designed to be used in everything from PDAs to computers to consumer electronics, though no other applications have been revealed outside Sony's PlayStation 3.

New architecture?

And three Japanese companies, Hitachi, Toshiba, and Renesas Technology, announced on December 28 they are working to form a joint venture to build cutting-edge plants to better compete against Intel and increasing competition from Korean and Chinese chipmakers.

Given Intel's design prowess, it's likely the A-team will be competing with other chip designers to deliver an entirely new architecture for the company within the next few years. "There's a lot of pride, a lot of egotism among engineers," says Eden, who now heads marketing for Intel's Mobility Group. "But that's good, because it leads to innovation."

Then, the slugfest both inside and outside the company for top chip kudos will get even more interesting.

Cliff Edwards, BusinessWeek