Several decades of CPU history are coming to an end when Intel’s last Pentium and Celeron processors soon leave the market. See how the two series have left their clear mark on the computer market for several decades.
It’s a piece of CPU history that will be written when Intel retires its Pentium and Celeron processors this month for good in 2023.
Starting next year, the two names will no longer be found in the company’s portfolio, which will henceforth simply be called an Intel processor, followed by a model number.
The Pentium brand, which debuted in 1993, will thus be on the market for 30 years – a historically long lifespan in an industry where generation changes take place on an annual basis.
It has therefore also become a string of historic and memorable models over the years, which deserve a revisit.
Pentium – the 586, which did not appear
Intel’s very first Pentium processor was originally to have a number-based name, in line with the 286, 386 and 486 series that preceded it.
However, leading up to its launch in 1993, Intel believed that a name would be easier to market and protect from copycats than the number 586.
Here Intel started with its first superscalar architecture, called P5, which made it possible to execute several instructions at a single frequency clock.
However, the frequencies were reduced to begin with, while the software had to be optimized to take advantage of parallel tasks, which caused 486-based designs to remain competitive for a while.
Pentium Pro – for more than fun
While Intel’s Pentium collection faced increasingly stiff competition, the more professionally designed version, the Pentium Pro and its server focus, made an impression.
Its advanced ‘Out-of-order’ architecture and ‘L2 cache’ enabled the processor to deliver much higher performance at each frequency clock.
The architecture made it suitable to operate in dual or quad configurations, which became every computer enthusiast’s wet dream.
It even performed in gigantic setups, such as the wildest supercomputer of the time, ‘ASCI Red’ – where just under 10,000 Pentitum Pro processors in 1997 together rounded the teraflop milestone (1,000 billion calculations per second).
Twenty years later, Intel matched that computing power in a simple beast of a CPU – the 18-core Core i9-7980XE.
The design was so successful that it lived on in the more consumer-oriented Pentium II with a dedicated MMX instruction set for ‘multimedia’ use. Just something that could make the difference when the small video clips in the Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia had to be played.
For professional use, the first Xeon processor was released: the Pentium II Xeon.
Celeron – for more than tight budgets
While Intel dominated in the most expensive segments, companies such as AMD, Transmeta and Cyrix were able to undercut the chip giant with Pentium-like processors.
This led Intel to introduce a budget-friendly ‘Celeron’ series in 1998, which distinguished itself by being Pentium II processors, where the expensive ‘cache’ storage was saved away.
One simple model, however, caught the attention of the enthusiasts: the A models – which continue to be the important cache to work with, and here the cheapest ‘300A’ could even be tricked into working at one and a half times higher frequency.
Overclocking as a phenomenon became widespread when you could get the performance of a much more expensive Pentium II served at a low price, as the online media Anandtech at the time noted.
Pentium III – the gigahertz winner
Around the turn of the millennium, Intel and arch-rival AMD approached the promised gigahertz frequency wall of 1,000 MHz.
It was rounded up in March 2000 right around the time the dotcom bubble was moments away from bursting.
The Pentium III also got a dedicated mobile variant, which excelled by introducing variable frequencies in what Intel called ‘Speedstep’.
This was also the predecessor of what was to become Intel’s first purely mobile-focused processors: the Pentium M in 2003.
Pentium 4 and D – the heat nightmare
In the early zeroes, Intel’s dominance was increasingly challenged by competitors, but Intel resolved this by aiming for ever higher frequencies in its Pentium processors.
The Pentium 4’s Netburst architecture should be able to operate at increasingly staggering frequencies, it said, with plans to deliver 20 GHz processors sometime in 2010.
In the period 2003 to 2005, the strategy proved to be an evolutionary dead end. Extreme heat development already occurred at three gigahertz and they did not even reach the four gigahertz as desired. Today, it is still only a few Intel processors that can spin above the five gigahertz.
The heat waves were only exacerbated by the fact that Intel chose to launch the hot processors in dual-core variants at the same time.
Power consumption culminated in 2005 with the Pentium Extreme Edition and its then wild power consumption of 130 watts at 3.73 GHz.
Pentium M and Core – the big comeback
While Intel was struggling to control the heat output from its processors, the Israeli engineering team behind the Pentium M had simultaneously created an architecture that shone with high performance at moderate power consumption.
A Pentium M at 1.7 GHz could match a Pentium 4 at 2.6 GHz – while at the same time using four times less power.
That processor series was so promising that in 2006 it laid the foundation for Intel’s Core family, which took the Pentium M family’s power-efficient architecture and bolstered it with 64-bit support.
Referred to the offer shelves
While the Core and subsequent Core 2 had Intel blowing away the alternatives from AMD’s Athlon X2 series, the Pentium name lived on as a budget variant of the Core processors
The Celeron products fell another step down the hierarchy and were most often assigned to Intel’s mobile venture’s desktop and laptop variant, the Atom processors.
The series was then split into gold and silver series, with neither part really sparkling, with Pentium ‘gold’ processors as low-end versions of the Core processors and the silver models as dull atom-based CPUs for nothing more than the most basic needs.