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Processors and semiconductors

Market booms, busts - all in one year

2004 in review 2004 was a year of two distinct halves for the semiconductor industry, the first characterised by boom, the latter not so much bust as a vaguely downward slide. Final figures are not yet in for the last months of the year, but the start of the second half showed a clear decline. This prompted numerous revisions of forecasts made during the first, more vigorous half.

While 2003 showed all the first signs of recovery, growth was initially held in check by the SARS outbreak and the Iraq adventure. Those events past, 2004 saw a full-bodied boom as improving consumer confidence and a growing economies drove demand for electronics goods and, in turn, the semiconductor products on which they're based.

But in the second half of the year, chip makers' customers began spending less as consumer and business demand slowed. Instead of buying new chips, they focused on clearing the decks of all the parts they'd bought in the overly-optimistic (as it turned out) H1. That left chip fabs with huge quantities of unsold stock of their own as the inventory correction continued through H2.

Intel's troubled year

Intel finally launched its long-awaited 90nm desktop Pentium 4, 'Prescott', in February. It was all geared up to launch 'Dothan', its first 90nm Pentium M product, in the same month too, but in January the chip giant came clean and said the part had been delayed until the Spring. Dothan arrived in May.

Dothan and Prescott arguably provided a template for the rest of Intel's year, with products delayed - or dropped altogether. Among the latter, the 4GHz Pentium 4, promised in November 2003 to ship in Q4 2004. Ditto the next-generation of the Prescott, 'Tejas'.

Intended to take the platform to speeds above 4GHz, Tejas was knocked on the head in May, along with 'Jayhawk', Tejas' Xeon equivalent. Instead, Intel accelerated its dual-core plans, tapping into what's become the chip technology flavour of the moment: processors with multiple cores. ARM announced one; so did Motorola's spun off - and now independent - semiconductor division, Freescale; IBM was reported to be working on one too, codenamed 'Antares'. A single-core version is expected too.

AMD, by contrast to its arch-rival, has by and large executed as planned. True, the 90nm Opteron chip, originally scheduled (broadly) for a late 2004 debut did so by the skin of its teeth; but the company certainly got its 90nm desktop and mobile processors out in Q3, as forecast. The chips appeared in August, a month after AMD rolled out Sempron, an updated 32-bit processor line-up, initially comprising a number of more or less rebadged Athlon XPs, but then moving onto Athlon 64 parts with their 64-bit functionality disabled.

In addition to 90nm versions, AMD added the Socket 939 pin-out to the Athlon 64 line, enhancing the on-board memory controller to support dual-channel DDR memory, but knocking back the chips' L2 cache size while it was about it.

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