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Intel's Pentium processor turns 20 years old today

Troubled start led to ongoing success
Fri Mar 22 2013, 13:10
Intel Pentium processor

FOR CHIPMAKER Intel, its launch of the Pentium processor 20 years ago today was a watershed moment, as it brought microprocessor chips bang into the public consciousness.

Intel's Pentium processor had a tough act to follow after the very successful 486 processor. Where Intel succeeded with the i586 Pentium processor was not so much with its performance but with the ability to use the chip as a marketing tool to build public consciousness that would help the firm shift future chips.

However before Intel reaped the rewards of the Pentium processor it had to endure one of the most painful episodes in the firm's history, the Pentium integer bug. Intel's initial handling of the situation was far worse than the bug itself, which most observers agreed would not be encountered by the vast majority of users.

At first Intel played on this statistic, claiming that it would only replace chips that customers could prove were faulty, yet it had to acknowledge the existence of the FDIV - floating point division - bug. Eventually Intel buckled under pressure and offered to replace all affected Pentium processors if users sent the chips back.

Internally Intel used the experience to improve its procedures, with Gordon Moore himself spending great effort to figure out just what went wrong. It has also been said that the Intel employee most directly responsible for the FDIV bug slipping through was offered counselling, so devastating was the negative effect of the bug on the company and some of its employees.

Despite Intel's poor initial handling of the Pentium FDIV bug, the processor went on to become arguably the firm's most successful piece of silicon. Intel's Pentium chip hasn't been its highest volume part, as the computer industry was considerably smaller during its original three and a half year run, but such is its association with the firm that the company still uses the branding to this day, 20 years on.

Intel's Pentium architecture did deliver significant improvements over the previous generation 486 architecture, notably a much improved floating point unit, which ironically brought with it the aforementioned FDIV bug. The firm also improved cache bandwidth in the Pentium chip, effectively cutting down the number of accesses required.

However Intel's greatest success with the Pentium was due to its timing. The firm managed to introduce the Pentium chip between Microsoft's release of Microsoft Windows 3.1 and Windows 3.11, but it was Microsoft's Windows 95, launched on 22 August 1995, that really helped lodge the Pentium in the public consciousness.

When industry watchers comment on the Wintel domination, that domination really started with Microsoft's Windows 95. Prior to Windows 95 Intel and Microsoft were strong partners, but after the PC operating system's launch they became inseparable, thanks to both behind the scenes work and branding.

Intel used the Pentium brand to push the company forward along with its Intel Inside marketing campaign. The firm has shifted to using Core as its primary desktop and mobile chip branding for the past seven years, but the Pentium brand is still synonymous with not only its processors but silicon chips in PCs in general.

As Intel was effectively tied to the Pentium brand due to its success, the firm decided to also brand its later architectures as Pentium, and even its first server and workstation chips were labeled as Pentium Pro. The firm's later desktop and laptop chips simply added a model number, like film sequels, with the Pentium 2, Pentium 3 and Pentium 4 all being incremental improvements on the original, though the Pentium M moniker was reserved specifically for mobile chips.

Intel's Pentium 4 was the last time the firm emblazoned its premium desktop and laptop chips with the Pentium branding, and the follow-up Conroe chips were so significantly different that the firm decided to ditch Pentium and go with Core branding. Nevertheless the Pentium branding was brought back for the firm's low-cost chips, taking the marketing spot once occupied by its Celeron brand.

For Intel, the Pentium chip initially brought headaches and a significant financial loss, but eventually the brand it built up helped the firm sell tens of millions of chips and has become so successful that the firm has found it hard to let go of the brand that made it the dominant player in the semiconductor industry. µ


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