This fall, Intel released the Pentium 4 microprocessor (formerly code-named Willamette), a P7-based 32-bit chip that features the first totally new processor core from Intel since the company released the P6-based Pentium Pro in October 1995. The Pentium 4 debuts at 1.4GHz, with future upgrades providing 100MHz jumps. Initial shipments of Pentium 4 processors interface with a high-speed 400MHz bus (compared with typical 133MHz or 100MHz buses), but Intel promises a Pentium 4-compatible chipset in 2001 that will enable use on a less-costly 133MHz bus. A midlevel Pentium 4, which will feature a 266MHz bus, is also in the works but won't see the light of day until late 2001. In the meantime, the Pentium 4 is expensive and geared toward servers and high-end power users.

The planned 2001 releases might indicate that Intel is backpedaling from the 400MHz Rambus RDRAM-based bus, so analysts wonder about the viability of Rambus' design. RDRAM has been at the center of controversy for some time. Despite SDRAM's high price and specifications, tests show that technically slower SDRAM outpaces RDRAM on high-end Pentium III systems. "Intel has always maintained that they will examine other memory solutions," a Rambus spokesperson said in response to the move away from RDRAM. "\[RDRAM\] will be unmatched in performance \[on Pentium 4 systems\]."

Intel's plans for phasing out Pentium III products are unclear, especially given Pentium III's recent forays above the 1GHz mark. Intel will probably replace its low-end Celeron processors with a new processor family code-named Timna. These processors will integrate previously separate features, such as video controllers.

After a trying year of nose-to-nose battles with rival AMD, Intel expects the Pentium 4 to reestablish the Pentium processor family as the ultimate in PC performance. "Around the world, PC users associate the Pentium brand with the highest PC performance, compatibility, and quality available," said Pam Pollace, vice president of Intel Sales and Marketing. "Computer users will be able to instantly recognize the Pentium 4 processor as Intel's newest high-performance microprocessor."