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I'll never forget when Intel first announced that the name for the successor to the 486 would be "Pentium." I and most of my fellow computer nerds thought the name was silly and not suitably geeky. Everyone knew that computer components were supposed to have names with numbers in them; after all, Star Wars droids, Star Trek ships, software versions, Compuserve e-mail addresses, and every other kind of computer-related thing you could think of had a moniker consisting of some mix of numbers and letters. So what's with a name that vaguely suggests the concept of "fiveness," but would be more appropriate for an element or a compound?
To this day, I still have no idea who or what was responsible for the name "Pentium," but I suppose it no longer matters. A question that's still worth asking, though, is why the Pentium name has stuck around as the brand name for Intel's main processor product line through no less than four major architectural changes. In a nutshell, the answer is that the Pentium brand name, having somehow made the transition from the original Pentium architecture to the radically different Pentium Pro (or P6) architecture, became synonymous with the most successful desktop microprocessor architecture of all time — in fact, in its heyday "Pentium" became virtually synonymous with "PC."
This series of articles takes a look at the consumer desktop processors that have borne the Pentium name, beginning with the original Pentium up through today's Pentium 4 (Prescott) and Pentium M divisions. The overview is general enough that for the most part it should be accessible to the nonspecialist, and it should give you a sense of the major differences between each generation of Pentiums. In keeping with the Ars tag line, the article does not attempt to tell you everything about every iteration of the Pentium; instead, it covers only what you need to know.
The original Pentium
Pentium Vitals Summary Table
Introduction date: March 22, 1993
Process: 0.8 micron
Transistor Count: 3.1 million
Clock speed at introduction: 60 and 66 MHz
Cache sizes: L1: 8K instruction, 8K data
Features: MMX added in 1997
The original Pentium is an extremely modest design by today's standards, and when it was introduced in 1993 it wasn't exactly a blockbuster by the standards of its RISC contemporaries, either. While its superscalar design (Intel's first) certainly improved on the performance of its predecessor, the 486, the main thing that the Pentium had going for it was x86 compatibility. In fact, Intel's decision to make enormous sacrifices of performance, power consumption, and cost for the sake of maintaining the Pentium's backwards compatibility with legacy x86 code was probably the most strategically-important...