Intel Corp. is expected to introduce today its first desktop computer processors capable of powerful 64-bit computing -- although it will be at least a year before there are programs that can take advantage of that ability.
Conventional processors today handle data 32 bits at a time. The new chips can process twice as much data at once, allowing for faster numbers crunching, video editing and game playing.
Engineers liken the improvement in performance to doubling the number of lanes on a freeway. But there is little 64-bit software available. While the latest Mac computers from Apple Computer Inc. have a 64-bit operating system, the overwhelming majority of computers use Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system. After several delays, Microsoft says a 64-bit version of its Windows XP operating system will be available in the first half of this year.
"Neither desktop nor notebook users will need or benefit from 64-bit computing ... until 2006 or 2007 at the earliest," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64, a technology consultancy in Saratoga, Calif., that specializes in studying microprocessors.
The move by Intel had been expected. Archrival chip maker Advanced Micro Devices Inc., although much smaller than Intel, introduced its first 64-bit desktop chip in September 2003.
Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel, the world's largest chip company, with more than 80% of the world market in computer processors, has been seen as playing catch-up with AMD in 64-bit computing for consumer PCs.
"Intel probably felt AMD is running around saying they have 64-bit chips ... and now can offer something to nullify that," Brookwood said.
Intel has already begun shipping the five processors it is introducing today in its flagship Pentium 4 chip lineup. Intel achieved the 64-bit capability by adding extensions to 32-bit chips that allow them to access greater portions of memory.