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Michael Kanellos


Intel once said desktop buyers wouldn’t really need 64-bit capabilities until toward the end of the decade, but the company will make such capabilities a feature across its desktop lines next year.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker disclosed at its analyst meeting in New York that it will include 64-bit functionality on its desktop chips starting in 2005, a schedule that roughly coincides with the release of a 64-bit version of Windows for desktops coming next year. The functionality will appear even in the budget Celeron line.

The plan marks a definite acceleration for Intel. In February, company executives indicated that 64-bit chips for client computers–which will be able to access more data through a larger pool of memory than today’s chips–wouldn’t likely come until Microsoft releases Longhorn, a future version of Windows now due at the end of 2006.

At the time, CEO Craig Barrett identified when 64-bit chips (based around the familiar Intel x86 architecture) would hit for servers and workstations but said the company didn’t have plans to come out with similar chips for standard desktops in the near future.

A year before that, company executives said consumers might not need such chips until 2008.

The change of direction was likely inspired by the gains rival Advanced Micro Devices has made in the market. In the past year, AMD has gained nearly a point of market share and seen the average price of its microprocessors rise, an indication that AMD is landing its chips in more expensive computers than in the past.

A standard 32-bit microprocessor like the Pentium 4 on the market now can only access data out of 4GB of memory. A 64-bit chip can manage far more memory, which means access to more data at the same time; the additional data in turn leads to realistic graphics and better video.

In reality, it’ll be years before many consumers buy computers with more than 4GB of memory. Right now, most PCs come with 512MB of memory. PC makers generally double the amount of memory in their systems every 18 months, meaning that 4GB machines won’t be mainstream for about another four years.

Still, gamers and hobbyists will buy computers with this amount of memory as soon as OSes and games become available. Rather than cede this lucrative and influential niche to AMD temporarily, Intel is accelerating its release schedule.

Offering 64-bit capabilities also gives budget-minded customers peace of mind that their systems won’t become obsolete as more software gets written for the more elaborate chips.

Microsoft offered up its own endorsement of 64-bit computing on Tuesday, saying it has reached the near-final, or release candidate stage for both its 64-bit server and desktop operating systems. Microsoft said it hopes the new versions of Windows, which have been in the works for years will help make 64-bit computing a mainstream activity by next year.

“There’s a need for a mainstream 64-bit solution that is fast to deploy and easy to grow into,” senior product manager John Borozan said in a statement. “Volume deployment of x64 will spur new opportunities for innovation that were previously limited by 32-bit barriers.”

Game makers will release products to coincide with the new OS.

Technologically, the feat should be relatively easy to accomplish. The circuitry required to turn a standard 32-bit Pentium 4 into a 64-bit chip is actually already in the Pentium 4. Intel and computer makers, however, need to enable it at the factory.

CNET’s Ina Fried contributed to this report.