What’s in a name? Quite a lot, Intel Corp. thinks. So after 20 years of pushing clock speed as the main identifying number in its processors, the chipmaker is about to give buyers what it hopes is an improved way of figuring out its models.

Starting next month new models of the company’s

three desktop and two mobile processors will each be divided into three series: 300, 500 and 700. Each series represents an increase in performance and features such as front-side bus, cache size and hyperthreading. Within each category faster or more features will mean a higher number – for example, a Pentium4 350 will have better performance than a Pentium4 320 running the same software.

Existing models and inventory will keep their names. The new naming system won’t apply to Xeon or Itanium chips.

“We’ve tried to achieve a simpler and more accurate mechanism for representing differences in overall performance,” said Doug Cooper, Intel’s country manager here.

“What the purchaser had traditionally done is look at clock speed alone,” he said. But doesn’t help distinguish two systems with identical clock speeds and different caches, which have different performances.

“This processor numbering scheme is a much simpler way for the consumer to separate those differences.”

He compared it to the way digital cameras are marketed: Higher model numbers mean more features. Camera buyers who don’t know what the differences are know to ask sales staff, he said.

Ironically one goals of the new series numbers will be to encourage computer buyers to ask sales staff about the differences between the Intel chips. “A big piece of it is making the consumer aware of technology in the machine they’re buying,” said Cooper. “It helps the consumer understand there are more things happening in their system than a faster microprocessor.”

Competitor AMD Corp. chortled at the news. Two years ago the company began naming its chips with a number which corresponds to its benchmark tests, so buyers know an AMD Athlon 2800+ has better performance than an Athlon 3000+.

“This is just another example of Intel following AMD’s lead,” said company spokesman Cathy Abbinanti. But she also said Intel hasn’t made it clear if a 350 processor has better performance than a 320, or just different features.

“Their model numbers raise more questions than they answer.”

However, Cooper said Intel’s higher series numbers will mean better performance.

Industry reaction has been cautious, although Intel’s decision means desktop and laptop makers will have to alter advertising and marketing campaigns. Margaret Hills, a spokesman for IBM Canada said the company has no comment yet. “It’s took early for us to tell the implications of Intel’s decision.”

No one from Hewlett-Packard Canada returned a call by press time.

Among white box manufacturers, Paul Girard, president of Vancouver-based Seanix Technology Inc., said the switch “probably will make it simpler for customers.

“It makes sense. It’s a good decision.”

“It just means old guys like me have to remember gigahertz numbers and the model number.”

“I think it will help sales,” said Dragoslav Minic, marketing director of MDG Computers Canada Inc. of Toronto, who noted Intel plans do to some marketing to explain the change and its importance. “More explaining won’t hurt the industry. Any education campaign is welcome.”

Industry analysts also agreed with the move. “It’s long overdue,” said Eddie Chan, a mobile and PC analyst with IDC Canada. “Hopefully people will be able to understand the new naming scheme, but there will be challenges to get everyone thinking outside the traditional reference.”

In a briefing note Forrester Research analyst Simon Yates said some of the confusion in Intel’s lineup began when it brought in the Pentium M processor, which has slower clock speeds than a Pentium 4 processor but because of a different architecture can perform better against certain benchmarks.

But he added that responsibility for making buyers understand the differences in newly-named Intel processors will fall to PC manufacturers, who will have to simplify their product lines and branding strategies, increase education and define new approaches to online and offline purchasing.

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