Following Intel's roadmap

Apple didn’t walk into its commitment to Intel processors with eyes wide shut. Whatever the reason for the switch—whether it’s because of Intel’s better performance per watt as Steve Jobs said or some of the more complex explanations making their rounds on the Internet—Apple would not have made the move unless it was convinced by Intel that the Santa Clara, Calif., giant’s CPUs were the way of the future.

No one outside of Apple and Intel was privy to the closed door meetings, but the plans for posterity that Intel displayed at its recent developer forum must have gone a long way toward cementing a MacTel reality.

In the macro sense, Intel’s processor roadmap can be pretty much summed up as “More and Smaller.” If you’ll excuse the rhyme, “more” means multi-core—as in, something much like both PowerPCs of a dual-processor G5 on a single piece of silicon. Intel estimates that 70 percent of both its desktop and mobile Pentium-family CPUs will be shipping as multi-core products by next year.

“Smaller” means that the company is moving to chips with traces that will be 65 nanometers apart rather than 90 nanometers as they are now. Less space between traces means more chips per acre of silicon—potentially leading to lower chip prices in a competitive environment—as well as faster speeds.

The Road Ahead

On the micro level, the roadmap gets complicated in a hurry. Intel has more models of processors than Congress has pork-barrel spending projects. Even Intel employees must be confused by the in-house habit of naming core revisions after cities and towns and then marketing them with model numbers that indicate everything from architecture, speed, and cache size to the type of motherboard socket they fit in—not to mention whether the processor is dual-core, supports the EM-64T 64-bit instruction extensions, or features Hyper-Threading.

Though Intel offers a huge variety of processors, the current state of the art 64-bit Intel desktop products are the dual-core Pentium Processor Extreme Edition 840; the dual-core Pentium D 840, 830, and 820; the single-core Pentium 4 in too many 2MB cache, 6xx and 1MB cache 5xx models to list; and the Celeron D in too many 3xx models to list. All run somewhere in between 2.5GHz and 3.8GHz and are 90 nanometers. However, the dual-core Pentiums and one P4-based single-core processor code-named Cedar Mill should be 65-nanometers sometime early in 2006.

The Pentium M, Intel’s flagship mobile product, will be supplanted on the high-end sometime in 2006 with a 65-nanometer, dual-core part code-named Yonah. Since both the Pentium M and Yonah are 32-bit chips, it will probably be at least another iteration before you’ll see a 64-bit MacTel notebook.

Intel is the chief designer and supplier of its own chipsets, the auxiliary chips that handle CPU communications, memory, and peripherals. The most recent Pentium chipsets include the 915, 925, 945, and 955 which support PCI Express, DDR2, and main memory up to 4GB with front-side busses running between 500MHz and 1,066MHz. Several of the numerous incarnations also support older DDR but Intel has made the switch far earlier than the rest of the industry—some say too early—and won’t be looking back. The 9xx series seems to be Intel’s chipset choice for the foreseeable future; however, a new mobile chipset code-named Calistoga is being readied to accompany the new Yonah processor to market.

Forecast: Legal Rain

The information Intel has parceled out about its CPUs and chipsets understandably doesn’t extend beyond 2006. However, the introduction of EM-64T, multi-core, PCI Express, and DDR2 are very recent and you shouldn’t any startling announcements for at least a year or two—unless of course it involves Intel rival AMD.

AMD has filed suit against Intel, alleging that Intel indulges in illegal monopolistic practices that have prevented AMD from growing its market share appreciably or selling anything at all to large vendors such as Dell. Which company is in the right or who wins the litigation is largely irrelevant to Apple’s future from a technological standpoint—AMD CPUs are completely x86/Intel compatible. However, a second competitive supplier might lead to cheaper Mactels down the road.

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