Sixty-four-bit computing is coming to the desktop next year, but Intel Corp. is gambling that the demand for such power will remain only for high-end enterprise systems.
At the Microprocessor Forum here last week, IBM, of Armonk, N.Y., became the second chip maker to announce a 64-bit product for use in desktops. The 1.8GHz PowerPC 970 will be introduced in the second half of next year. While Apple Computer Inc. has declined to publicly embrace the chip, sources said the company will feature it in new Mac OS desktops next year, also in the second half.
In the first half of next year, Advanced Micro Devices Inc., of Sunnyvale, Calif., will release its first 64-bit processors for desktops and servers. In a presentation at the conference, AMD revealed the first benchmark results for its new Clawhammer product and contended its chip will outperform comparable 32-bit processors from Intel.
Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., will continue selling its 32-bit Pentium 4 chips for desktops, aiming its 64-bit Itanium architecture at the high-end arena. Despite reports that Intel has been working on a parallel project for a 64-bit x86 architecture, officials said the companys future lies in Itanium, technology it spent more than $1 billion to develop but which is not compatible with most existing applications.
Most PC makers will migrate to 64-bit desktop processors this decade, analysts said, posing a dilemma for Intel, which fears that a 64-bit Pentium could undermine support for its struggling Itanium line. "The moment Intel releases an x86-based [Pentium] 64-bit chip, Itanium is dead," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst for Insight 64, in Saratoga, Calif.
Users and analysts say the move to 64-bit processors is inevitable. In general, 64-bit chips offer several advantages over 32-bit chips. They can process twice as much data per clock cycle as 32-bit processors. In addition, 64-bit processors can handle far more than the 4GB RAM limit of 32-bit chips.
While Intel counters that its 32-bit processors are plenty powerful to meet user needs, some users reject that assertion, noting that much of todays software is already very memory-intensive. In addition, 64-bit chips can process encryption faster than 32-bit chips.
"Just a couple of years ago, folks said you wouldnt see many people doing film editing on PCs, but now [you will]," said Grant Boucher, a technical consultant for Digital Revelations, a subsidiary of Revelations Entertainment LLC, in Los Angeles.
Boucher, who created some of the special effects in the movie "Titanic" using a 500MHz system from Compaq Computer Corp. that featured 64-bit Alpha processors, said recent efforts, such as Microsoft Corp.s push toward having computers operate as TV/stereo players, underscore the need for 64-bit chips. "That kind of consumer software is really going to start choking [32-bit- based] systems when they try to handle high-definition TV data as well as music, basically forcing the processor to try to handle eight times as much data at once," he said.