The crumbling cookie

On September 27, 1999, just under two months since AMD’s Athlon stole the performance crown from Intel, the next shocker came in the form of the delay of the elusive Camino chipset (i820).  The BX replacement we all had extremely high hopes for had been delayed “until further notice” and all of the sudden Intel’s recently introduced 133MHz FSB Pentium III ‘B’ processors had no platform to run on other than the i810E which was far from a performance platform. 

As we put it in our review of the i820 chipset, the delay was “a huge hit for Intel because this [was] the first time they’ve truly screwed up a chipset launch. Sure, there have been delays before, but never have they come within a few days of releasing a product and had to cancel the launch due to a severe problem with stability.”  At the time, we discounted it as simply a mistake on Intel’s part, and everyone makes mistakes at one point or another. 

Then came the issue regarding the i820’s virtually exclusive support for Rambus DRAM as a memory platform.  The lack of a real performance benefit courtesy of the i820’s RDRAM implementation left many users confused as to why RDRAM was priced between 3 and 5x the price of SDRAM yet offered a very small if not non-existent performance improvement. 

Following the Rambus fiasco, including a disgust many shared regarding Intel’s attempt to force RDRAM upon the market as well as a disappointment with the business practices of Rambus, the next major blow to Intel’s stature was incurred: a recall of their Memory Translator Hub chips.  The MTH was the only point of salvage for the i820 chipset, simply because, it was what allowed for PC100 SDRAM to be supported on i820 motherboards, unfortunately while incurring a very serious performance penalty because of the translations required by the chip.  Needless to say, at this point, users began to turn to VIA in order to supply them with chipsets to use their 133MHz FSB Pentium III processors with. 

The fourth disappointment Intel saw towards the beginning of this year was the eagerness of motherboard manufacturers to adopt platforms based on VIA’s KX133 chipset, an Athlon platform.  The Athlon was gaining momentum as well as market share, two things that Intel did not expect to see happen. 

Disappointment number five came in the fact that the price delta between the Pentium III and the Athlon began to increase to the point that Intel was not only losing chipset sales, but CPU sales as well.  A recent figure from an unnamed motherboard manufacturer indicated that approximately 55% of their motherboard shipments featured VIA chipsets, that’s an incredible number if you consider that just a year ago there was virtually no reason to go with anything other than the Intel BX chipset. 

Not only did prices of Intel processors begin to rise, but the supply of their processors seemed to drop.  Prior to Intel’s downward spiral, AMD would be the one we would accuse of “paper launching” processors, since you could never find a newly “released” AMD CPU until after its launch.  Intel’s policy was exactly the opposite, upon the introduction of a new CPU, systems based on that CPU would be available the very same day. 

Since the release of AMD’s Athlon, things have changed.  Slowly but surely the roles of the two companies have reversed, now, Intel is the one being accused of “paper launching” processors while AMD CPUs are readily available and definitely affordable.  These “paper launches” were at their worst with the release of the 1GHz Pentium III (March 2000) before the 850, 866 and 933MHz Pentium IIIs in an attempt to compete with AMD’s 1GHz Athlon that was released just days before.  What began to make the community characterize Intel’s CPU releases as “paper launches” was the fact that you couldn’t actually go out and buy a 1GHz Pentium III whereas, by the end of the month, the Athlon was already available in speeds from 500MHz up to 1GHz in 50MHz increments. 

The trend seemed to continue as Intel released the 1.13GHz Pentium III at the very end of July, while the 1GHz Pentium III parts were just finally becoming available in decent quantities, four months after the “release.”  The 1.13GHz processor was intended to give Intel the clock speed over AMD who had only been able to reach 1GHz with their Thunderbird.  Remember that in the OEM market, performance comes second to clock speed, it’s easier to sell a 1.13GHz system over a 1GHz system because the 1.13GHz system is “obviously faster.” 

Index Tom’s Hardware doesn’t review the 1.13

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