Plug it in: Sockets vs Slots - The Futureby Anand Lal Shimpi on October 19, 1998 5:25 PM EST
- Posted in
|In May of 1997, Intel took the first steps towards a dark future in the eyes of two of their major competitors, AMD and Cyrix. With the introduction of their Pentium II processor a handful of precedents were set in the world of PC hardware that would exhibit an incredibly changing effect upon the entire microprocessor industry.|
|Immediately after the introduction of the
Pentium II, one of the biggest questions raised by hardware enthusiasts and general users
alike was that of the purpose of the move away from a socket based processor interface
towards the slot design used by the Pentium II.
Now, well over a year after the introduction of the slot-based Pentium II the industry is beginning to finish healing itself after the influx of Pentium II processors into the mainstream market as a replacement for the previously "high end" Pentium MMX processors. This healing process is one inspired by the only currently active major competitor to Intel in terms of performance and sales, Advanced Micro Devices, the pro-creator of the K5 and K6 line of microprocessors.
Promising a future upgrade path for current socket based systems, does AMD have the reputation necessary to inspire an Intel driven world to give them the backing they need to come forth with their next generation of processors? Or must we all follow the foggy path Intel's Slot-1 and its successors will pave for us? What happened to the days where companies like AMD, Cyrix, and Intel all tailored to different factions of the market, must there be only one "winner" in the microprocessor industry? This is a capitalistic world, where anyone and anything can succeed given the proper backing, so why should one believe that it's either Intel or bust?
The Transition from the 486
If we could trace Intel's incredible lead in the race for the faster microprocessor down to a single earth-shattering action, it would have to be the transition from the 486. As a little refresher course for those of you who were into computer hardware during the days of the 486, AMD had finally begun to catch up to Intel in terms of performance, reliability, and their outstanding price produced an obvious threat to Intel's grasp of the 486 market.
The solution? Change the voltage specification for the most popular processors of the time, the 486 was on the verge of making history without even realizing it. The 486's 5V operation ran too hot for the future as Intel saw it, so by dropping their processor specification down to 3.3V and by eventually flooding the market with these new low power chips, the fault line between Intel and AMD began to tremble, preparing for a quake of tremendous proportions with only one survivor coming out on top.
After Intel's little voltage fiasco with the 486 AMD attempted to shake off the loss by jumping on the 3.3V bandwagon as well, after all, the move towards the 3.3V core voltage standard was a logical one and can't be solely considered a shutout marketing tactic. In fact, AMD will have aspired to promote two non-standard voltages with two of their processors years after the days of the 486, the 2.9V and 3.2V with the K6/200 and 233 respectively.
This is where the most controversial action of the time took place, Intel's decision to pursue a new, 5th generation microprocessor architecture obviously before the peak of the life of the 486. Intel new "586" processor, as it was dubbed, offered very little above the top of the line 486 processors of the time, other than a promise of a future upgrade path through the use of its revolutionary new socket specification. Prior to its release (and eventual failure of the 586 as it was replaced by the Pentium), 486 processors either made use of a soldered design or LIF socket (low insertion force) as an interface, with most newer 486's taking advantage of the new ZIF (zero insertion force) socket, more specifically, the Socket-3 design. Upon their release, the Pentium processor, offered in a 60 and 66MHz flavor, made use of a more "advanced" Socket-4 design which offered more pin assignments for the processor and theoretically allowing for a more advanced processor to be run on the motherboard. This would prove to be another failure as Socket-4 was quickly replaced by Socket-5 and shortly thereafter put into retirement in favor of a truly more advanced Socket-7 design.
While all of this was taking place, AMD was still stuck back in the days of the 486, eventually reaching speeds of 133MHz with their highly overclockable enhanced 486 processors. Cyrix, barely mentioned until now, was in the same predicament, they had much time and money invested in an excellent design however with one swift flick of the wrist, the market changed directions leaving both Cyrix and AMD in the dust.