Intel Corp. has begun shipping 3GHz Pentium 4 processors, the first to feature performance-enhancing hyperthreading technology, to major PC makers in preparation for its formal launch Nov. 14, sources said.
New processors are normally shipped to major PC companies weeks in advance to enable vendors to validate the performance of the chip and assure it will work with computer makers existing products and software. In addition, Intel "fills the channel" to assure PCs will be assembled and ready for shipping the day of the launch.
While Intel declined to specify the chips launch date or price, sources said the 3GHz Pentium 4 will debut Nov. 14, just two days prior to the kickoff of Fall Comdex in Las Vegas, and will be priced at $637, based on 1,000-unit shipments.
In addition to running at a faster frequency than Intels current top chip, a 2.8GHz Pentium 4, the 3GHz processor will feature hyperthreading technology designed to boost performance by enabling a single chip to operate like two virtual chips.
Intel first introduced the design feature in its Xeon processors for workstations and servers earlier this year. The technology developed by Intel essentially enables a processor to handle two streams of software data, rather than the usual one, allowing applications to tap previously unused resources in the chip and increasing the amount of data it can process.
The processor is ideally suited for use with multiprocessor applications, such as Windows XP Pro, or with multithreading-enabled software, such as Windows XP Home and Windows Media Player 9. Hyperthreading also will boost performance if multiple applications are run at once.
"Hyperthreading will improve performance up to 25 percent when used with multithreaded software or when multitasking," said George Alfs, a spokesman for Intel, based in Santa Clara, Calif.
But while PC users will clearly benefit from the new feature, Intel faces a marketing challenge to explain what hyperthreading is and its ultimate benefit, Alfs admitted.
"Weve already begun taking steps to educate people about it," he said, noting that the company first announced the technology last year. "It will take some time, but we plan to further educate users as the technology ramps into the marketplace."
That challenge is somewhat similar to the problem rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. has faced in seeking to convince PC buyers its Athlon XP processors are capable of performing as well as higher frequency Pentium 4 chips. AMD, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., is now using labeling to indicate the relative performance of its chips. For example, the chip maker contends its fastest processor, a 2.25GHz Athlon XP 2800+, performs about as well as the 2.8GHz Pentium 4.
But AMDs efforts to tout performance benchmarks rather than actual chip frequencies have been met with only moderate success, spurring the chip maker to further cut prices to retain market share.
"AMD has tried to show that its processors will perform better than their megahertz speed suggests, and now Intel also will need to use benchmarks to show the true performance of their chips," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Group, in San Jose, Calif.
However, Enderle said, hyperthreading should offer some real benefits, although relatively few of todays applications are designed to take advantage of it.
"For most people, I would think the big benefit would be on Microsoft Outlook, which takes up a lot of resources when it automatically tries to replicate information. With this chip, that should occur more seamlessly in the background," he said. "Overall, though, it will likely be awhile before a lot of applications are designed to take advantage of this technology."