Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) rolled out its next generation of Pentium 4 chips today, a new line of processors that are significant not for any great speed increases but for what they tell us about the future.

The chips, which were codenamed Prescott, are the first to be mass-produced using 90-nanometer manufacturing technology -- a process that makes them smaller and less expensive than previous new releases. 3.4-gigahertz processors should be available today from many computer makers, including Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) and Hewlett-Packard (NASDAQ:HPQ). These offer only a modest clock speed increase over older versions, but Intel is hoping to release 4-gigahertz chips by the end of the year.

Intel spokesman William Siu told reporters that the later Prescott iterations are targeted for so-called "Entertainment PCs." These are devices designed to control televisions, CD and DVD players, stereo equipment, and anything else that might be a part of a home entertainment system.

Several publications today indicate that Intel has likely shipped the Prescott line with some features that are not activated. These may include better security technology and the ability to run multiple operating systems, says The Wall Street Journal, but the big question is whether 64-bit circuitry is already in place. Rival Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE:AMD) already has 64 bit-capable chips on the market, but Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and most other software makers don't yet support them. When they finally do, Intel will be ready.

The Prescott party and the move toward Entertainment PCs are two more bits of good news for the computer makers, especially in the face of an improving economy. As icing on the cake, most semis are up today after a report from the Semiconductor Industry Association revealed chip sales grew 18% in 2003.