After years of touting processor speed as a measure of performance, Intel is making like yesterday's Apple Computer and shifting the focus of its processor names away from megahertz, the company announced on Friday.

All future Intel desktop and mobile chips will receive a processor series number – 300, 500, or 700 – based on the chip's specific brand family. New Celeron chips will be the 300 series, Pentium 4s the 500 series, and the P4 Extreme Editions the 700 series. The company will "further differentiate" each chip based upon its architecture, clock speed, frontside bus, cache, and other technologies.

The new naming scheme is designed to help buyers differentiate between chips based upon all of their features, not just clock speed, said Don MacDonald, vice president of Intel's sales and marketing group. That's because megahertz is no longer the best way to pick the right processor for a specific computing job.

"A single metric cannot define everyone's measure of goodness," he said.

The numbers aren't indicative of any level of performance, "unless you redefine what performance means," MacDonald explained. "It's the sum of processor features. The focus on gigahertz isn't helpful to consumers anymore."

The result should be less complicated decisions for desktop and notebook buyers, MacDonald said: "It is becoming a more complex set of choices," he said. The new processor numbers should make it simpler to differentiate between similar products: "Ultimately you know that a higher number is better than a lower number."

'No better'

Intel's plan to offer processor numbers makes sense, but the company's decision to make the numbers brand-specific – instead of spread out across the chip families – makes the result less useful, said Peter Glaskowsky, editor-in-chief of Microprocessor Report.

"The goal should have been to make it easier to compare processors across architecture platforms," he said. For example, it would be useful to know how Intel might rate a specific Pentium M versus a specific Pentium 4 Mobile chip. Under the current system, you still can't tell at a glance which processor is necessarily better.

Unfortunately, the new naming system does further complicate the nearly impossible task of trying to compare Intel's current chips with AMD's products, he pointed out. "There was never a good way to do that, as the clock speeds alone could mislead you."

As a result, anyone who really wants to understand the difference between Intel and AMD parts will have to look to benchmarking results, Glaskowsky said. "Intel is forcing everyone who really cares to look at the benchmarks."

Which is exactly what savvy buyers should be doing, said Intel's MacDonald. "If they care about performance, hopefully they'll read a magazine that shows benchmarks for performance and battery life."