Faster and Faster

Article excerpt

SHOPPING FOR A PC? OPEN UP ALMOST any computer magazine, and you'll find an ad touting Intel Inside. Feel the speed. Experience the power. It's the mighty Pentium, king of the chips.

Well ... for now. If we've learned anything these days, it's how quickly today's mainframe becomes tomorrow's pocket calculator. And so it will be for the vaunted Pentium. Already a successor looms on the horizon: a new-generation microprocessor from Intel Corp., codenamed the P6. Intel insists the wondrous chip is still in "testing." In fact, knowledgeable sources report it's almost ready to go--and that Intel is waiting to get more life out of its older sister chip, the hugely popular Pentium. Small wonder that trade publications such as PC Week are awash in bubbly (if arcane) talk of "clock speeds," "data caches" and "micron widths." The P6 is supposed to be dazzlingly powerful, potentially two (even three) times as fast as the Pentium. What's more, it's designed to eke maximum performance out of an emerging generation of multimedia and communications software built around Microsoft's new Windows 95 operating system. Intel's shy about disclosing its production schedule, but NEWSWEEK has learned that a modest batch of P6 computers could be out as early as October.

Intel has long thrived by innovating ruthlessly. By the time rivals come out with a challenger, Intel has already moved on to the next generation, confident that great technology will find a market. Intel introduced the first Pentium just two years ago, and even experts were astounded at how quickly it came to dominate. A year ago, for instance, giant Compaq Computer concluded the Pentium would be too expensive for most consumers--and declined to pack it into its PCs. Today Pentiums drive almost every computer the company sells. "Shame on us" for being so shortsighted, says marketing director Michael Lambert. Compaq isn't making the same mistake again. It will test its first P6 machines with a selected group of power users later this month. A high-end commercial model will be in stores by December, at prices from $3,000 to $6,000, and the first consumer P6s should be out by April or May.

No one expects the new chip to quickly displace the Pentium, chiefly because Intel won't let it. Every P6 that is sold represents a Pentium that isn't, says John Wharton, a Silicon Valley consultant. For that reason, Intel will hold off producing the chip in large volumes until competitors start selling cut-price Pentium clones. Most analysts figure that won't happen for another year or more. But Intel aims to move quickly. It plans to introduce a small number of P6s in October or November, according to executive vice president Carl Everett, capable of speeds approaching 150 megahertz (the rate at which the microprocessor cycles through programming instructions). …