Intel May Cancel Celeron, Expand Atom Brand

Rumors around the Internet suggest that Intel may be planning to cancel the Celeron brand in 8-12 months, due to significant overlap with Atom prices. At present, the Celeron P4500 (1.86GHz, dual-core) is $86 as is the T3100 (1.9GHz, 1MB L2). The upcoming Atom N550, due to launch in the third quarter, is a dual-core chip running at 1500MHz, with a price tag of $86. The Celeron's will outperform the new Atom substantially, but there's also a cost factor to consider:  The $86 N550 includes its own chipset and graphics solution, while the Celerons don't.

Intel denies that it plans to kill the Celeron brand, but the company might have to disentangle its price structure to keep the venerable Celeron attractive. It's not clear if the brand is even necessary; Intel's decision to use the Pentium trademark on its lower-end processors while keeping Celeron alive makes it difficult for consumers to determine which processor is a better choice.

With Celeron gone, Intel could easily extend the "Pentium" brand down a bit farther to cover most of that CPU's territory, while simultaneously pushing Atom upwards. Proper positioning is key—we reviewed an ION-equipped N330 last year (dual-core, 1667MHz) and Atom's performance at that speed is just barely adequate. A 1500MHz dual-core netbook part may be a big step up for netbooks as a whole, but it won't turn Atom into a welterweight competitor.

If Intel does deprecate the brand, Celeron will be remembered as a chip that variously indicated terribly bad performance at one time, and offered high performance for minimal cash just a few years later. Celeron was first introduced as a product series intended to combat AMD and Cyrix in the low-end market. Intel's first Celeron design (codenamed Covington) was a Pentium II minus its L2 cache. The chip was a high-profile failure, with no L2 performance cratered in a wide variety of tests. Intel's second stab (Mendocino) hit home; the CPU included 128K of on-die L2 cache and was very overclocking friendly. The DIY market leapt on the new chip; it was common to see Celly 300A clocked at 400-450MHz. At this speed they were quite competitive with Intel's significantly more expensive Pentium II processors. From a business perspective, Mendocino was actually <i>too</i> good; the CPU's flexibility and performance drew customers away from Intel's high-margin products.

Desktop Multi-Core Debuts

The Mendocino Celerons didn't just draw customers away from PIIs, it became the first affordable chip to demonstrate the potential of multiprocessing. After ABIT released its dual-socket BP6 board, a significant number of enthusiasts bought two Celerons, slapped them in, and ran a SMP system for a fraction of what it would have cost if PII's had been used. Intel wasn't happy about this, either, and soon began locking newer Celerons to prevent them from operating in a dual-socket board.

The board that started it all--she doesn't look like much, but she's got it where it counts

For a time, Cellys were the favorite processors for PC enthusiasts. After the Pentium 4 debuted, Intel quietly released Celerons manufactured on a .18 micron process and with a larger (256K) L2 cache. Again these CPUs proved to be great overclockers and had an excellent price/performance ratio. Buy a 1.2GHz Tualatin Celeron, crank it up to 1.8GHz, and it rivaled both the P4 and AMD's Thunderbird. The Pentium 4's Celeron flavor didn't perform well--the reduced L2 cache hurt performance significantly--and when the Core 2 line came out, enthusiasts generally headed for that instead of the cheaper Celerons. Even if it hasn't been the class favorite for some years, it's a unique brand with a quirky history, and we rather hope Intel holds on to it.