Computer Business Review

MIPS COMES OUT FIGHTING TO WIN - THE DESKTOP - WITH ITS NEW R4400 64-BIT RISC

by CBR Staff Writer| 02 November 1992

Squeezing into the gap between Texas Instruments Inc's announcement of the Tsunami Sparc chip on October 9 and Sun Microsystems Inc's expected introduction of the first Tsunami box on November 10, MIPS Technologies Inc, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Silicon Graphics Inc, is due to upgrade its 64-bit R4000 chip to the R4400 this week with a major performance boost. Like Sun with the Tsunami part, MIPS is pinning its hopes on this chip to populate the desktop. In MIPS's mind, there are few points of further comparison between the R4400 and the anaemic Tsunami. Top rating on the single-chip, superpipelined R4400 is 113 SPECmark89 at 150MHz, which positions it to compete with performance leading RISCs from the likes of IBM Corp, Hewlett-Packard Co and Digital Equipment Corp. MIPS claims that all RISC chips offer roughly the same performance and that its R4400 96 SPECint89 score puts the part in the same league as Hewlett-Packard's top-end offering, while being distinguished by its significantly lower price and its wide availability.

Ramp in January

Like the R4000, the 2.3m-transistor 4400 comes in three iterations: the 179-pin PC, supporting only primary on-chip cache and aimed at the low-end desktops and embedded controls; the 447-pin SC, built with two primary 16Kb caches and supporting an optional off-chip secondary cache of 4Mb, targeted at high-performance desktops and servers; and the MC for multiprocessor configurations. Each 4400 specie also comes in 134MHz and 100MHz versions as well as the 150MHz. The 4400 delivers a SPECfp89 rating of 126. It is software-compatible with the 32-bit R3000, requiring no recompilation. The company currently has no SPEC92 performance marks available. Small quantities are already being sampled and volume production starts to ramp in January. Pricing is being left to each of the six semiconductor makers but all are expected to be in the same ballpark. As an example, Toshiba says it will ask $1,330 for the PC, $1,610 for SC and $1,932 for the MC in quantities of 1,000 and up during the first half of 1993. Even with the Advanced Computing Environment initiative dead, turning its chips into commodity items remains the key to MIPS' strategy. Where Precision Architecture RISC, Alpha and Sparc chips fail as merchant chips, the R4400 will be made and sold by MIPS's six semiconductor partners: Integrated Device Technology Inc, LSI Logic Corp, NEC Electronics Inc, Performance Semiconductor Corp, Siemens AG and Toshiba Corp. It remains to be seen whether the order rate is sufficient to keep all those foundries busy, even for a chip that MIPS calls the first 100 SPECmark part optimised for building personal computers.

The R-series microprocessor has been written off as a fading also-ran in the RISC stakes, and one not too long for this world. But the part is the first freely available RISC that will run Microsoft's NT and MIPS is determined to prove the gainsayers wrong, starting with the R4400 launched this week. - Maureen O'Gara reports.

MIPS doesn't know what it's costing Texas Instruments to produce Sun's Tsunami but based on price it has got on the silicon, MIPS is betting that the margins aren't that great. It claims its own semiconductor makers can make money. MIPS's known design wins, including Siemens Nixdorf Informationssysteme AG, Sumitomo Electric Co, Ing C Olivetti & Co SpA, Acer Group Inc and parent Silicon Graphics Inc, are not generators of massive volumes despite MIPS's claims that Sony Corp and NEC Corp are racking up the numbers in Japan. DEC's preoccupation with its Alpha machines at the expense of its MIPS line has cost MIPS perhaps its most significant volume outlet besides Compaq Computer Corp, another casualty of the Advanced Computing Environment fiasco. And MIPS can't look to its high-end Unix vendors such as Concurrent Computer Corp, Control Data Systems Inc, NCR Corp, Pyramid Technology Corp and Tandem Computers Inc increase their take-up by more than 15% over the 60,000 units they take already. That fact makes the chip for all intents and purposes a Microsoft Co

rp Windows New Technology engine. MIPS expects 10,000 to 20,000 chips to go to early NT implementors from the first half of next year, increasing to around 100,000 in 1994 as NT gets more broadly accepted. That 100,000 parts would not all be R4400s but a mix including R4000s and the promised low-power, low-cost VRX designed for notebook computers and due out next year. Integrated Device Technology is doing its own version of the VRX, version of the R4000 that MIPS has in the works, under the code name Orion. Described at the Microprocessor Forum, it's planned to be an under-$100 under-2.5W 4000-compatible giving between 58 and 63 SPECint and is due the second half of 1993.

Significant players

Michael Slater says that if NT takes off both of these notebook chips could become significant players. As for other chips on the stocks, MIPS seemed a little diffident last week about whether it would be doing an R5000 as previously suggested. Now it's not talking of anything apart from further R4000 upgrades next year. It also seems that the T5, aka the 500MHz R10000, the next step in the 2000, 3000, 4000 chain, has bounced from the end of next year into 1994. MIPS believes DEC will upgrade its R3000-based DECstations to the new 4400 early next year. However, it claims DEC missed an opportunity to ship revenue units based on the 4000 since January and believes the 150MHz Alphas likely to be announced November 10 will be in short supply for some time. MIPS is preening itself over the fact that it got getting the R4400 upgrade out in the timeframe it predicted it would a year ago. It is the first post-merger MIPS product out, and MIPS is taking the opportunity presented by the announcement to boast that the MIPS acquisition cost Silicon Graphics Inc no dilution of earnings. Its Mountain View neighbour was criticised at the time for the price it was willing to pay, a price it later trimmed. InfoCorp counted 190,000 MIPS R-series RISC-based systems out in the field in 1991.

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