When is a Pentium II not a Pentium II? Intel chairman and CEO Andy Grove announced this week that his company would be segmenting the Pentium II into three distinct lines of microprocessors, two of which will no longer use the name Pentium II. The three processors will address different markets, which include sub-$1000 PCs, standard business and home PCs, workstations, and high-end servers. At the high-end, Intel will be releasing its 64-bit Intel Architecture (IA) CPUs--code-named "Merced"--in 1999.

"Our plan is to use the latest \[Pentium II\] microarchitecture as the foundation of our product line from top to bottom," said Grove. "The processor alone is not enough. We must have motherboards and chipsets."

First, a little background: the current Pentium II design is known by its packaging design, the so-called "Slot 1." Slot 1 Pentium II microprocessors are encased in a black plastic capsule, their design is limited to dual CPU systems and their cache runs at only half the speed of the processor. The current generation Pentium II (Slot 1) comes in 233, 266, 300, and 333 MHz versions, though a 350 MHz version is likely. They are also designed for the slow 60 and 66 MHz motherboard bus that is common today, though some upcoming Slot 2 CPUs will work with the upcoming 100 MHz motherboards.

Coming soon is a next-generation Pentium II, that uses a new Slot 2 design. The Slot 2 Pentium IIs are hardware-incompatible with Slot 1 motherboards, but they will work with 100 MHz motherboards. These Pentium II CPUs will be released this Spring and will break past 400 and 450 MHz. Slot 2 Pentium II machines will support four CPUs as well, and feature a cache that runs at the same speed as the CPU. All of these improvements add up to much faster systems than simple MHz speed bumps could accomplish. On the other hand, the Slot 2 CPU cartridge is huge: at almost a foot in length, it's about twice as big as the Slot 1 design. Slot 2s are going to be extremely expensive, too, ensuring a long life for the Slot 1 design. Expect 400 and 450 MHz Slot 2 CPUs to sell for $2000-$3000 each in volume, much higher than the $150-$1000 for typical desktop CPUs.

When the Slot 2 Pentium II is released, it will be called a "Pentium II something" to differentiate it as a faster, high-end product. The "something" suffix has yet to be determined.

On the low-end, Intel is going to release a cache-less line of Pentium II CPUs that will replace today's Pentium systems. This CPU is code-named "Covington" and it will ship with a new chipset, the 440EX. PCs based on the Covington Pentium II will cost as little as $700. In many ways, the Covington CPU is just an interim solution, as the inevitable decline in CPU prices will bring regular Slot 1 Pentium II machines into the same price range.

"\{Covingtion\] comes in a Pentium II package but it substantially less expensive," Grove said. While the name of the Covington CPU hasn't yet been determined, it too will not be known as a "Pentium II."

Also due this Spring is the mobile version of the Pentium II, which Intel will introduce on April 15. Initially available in 233, 266, and 300 MHz versions, the mobile Pentium II will, for the first time, enable laptop computers to exist as true desktop replacements.

In 1999, Intel will unleash the eagerly-awaited 64-bit Merced, but Grove cautioned that it would be relegated to high-end multiprocessing servers at first. Desktop systems will continue to be based on the Pentium II family--whatever it is called by then--well into the future. Intel will basically ensure this by charging a premium for the Merced; expect prices on the first Merced CPUs to be extremely high