AMD launches Athlon XP processor family

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. has been claiming for some time that there's more to performance than clock speed in its battle with chip giant Intel Corp., and now the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company is ready to bet on it with the launch of its Athlon XP family of processors.

The four Athlon XP processors in new line, available today, run at clock speeds ranging from 1.33 to 1.53 GHz. But AMD has decided to take the focus off of simple clock speed, naming the new chips Athlon XP 1500+, 1600+, 1700+ and 1800+.

The new model numbers are designed to represent the performance of the new chips compared both with previous Athlons and the competition. For example, AMD says the 1800+ outperforms other processors running at 1.8 GHz, although the chip runs only at 1.53 GHz, said Mark Bode, division product marketing manager for desktop products at AMD.

The battle runs back to the fifth generation of x86 processors, Bode said. "At that point, the underlying work component was done differently with each architecture," he said. Before that, the 286, 386 and 486 processors from both Intel and AMD were using the same underlying architecture, so clock speed was a fair measure of performance.

"You expected that the work per clock cycle [of the processor] was going to go up, and the frequency would go up," Bode said.

But with different architectures, clock speed alone doesn't equal performance, Bode said. "Other markets already realized a long time ago that clock speed is not everything," Bode said. "The highest-performance workstation or server may not be the one with the highest clock speed."

Indeed, looking solely at clock speed, server chips have fallen behind desktop processors. In July, Compaq Computer Corp. began shipping its 1-GHz Alpha chip in servers, while the fastest version of Sun Microsystems Inc.'s UltraSPARC III chip runs at 900 MHz.

"At the end of the day, consumers need to be looking at how applications actually perform," Bode said.

So in addition to taking the spotlight away from clock speeds on its Athlon XP processors, AMD plans to start the True Performance Initiative, which is meant to gather industry groups and consumer advocates to develop a "true" performance measurement. "We're working to show [consumers] there is a megahertz myth out there," Bode said. AMD expects the new measurement to be in place by next year.

Meanwhile, AMD has released the Athlon XP family, the first family of processors based on the new chip core formerly code-named Palomino. The "XP" modifier signifies "extreme performance for Windows XP," the company said.

Among the improvements of the Athlon XP compared with previous versions are a 20% reduction in power consumption, enhanced multimedia and 3-D instructions, and the QuantiSpeed architecture, which is "the brains of the organization," Bode said.

Even with the new branding, AMD is still struggling to keep up with the competition, one analyst said. "You don't hear them talking about the 1900+ and the 2000+," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64 in Saratoga, Calif. Intel, on the other hand, launched its 2-GHz Pentium 4 chip at its developer forum in August (see story).

Last year, Intel and AMD took turns leapfrogging each other with processor speeds, Brookwood said. "Now we're seeing a situation where AMD, although they're making a big leap, they're still behind," he said.

But one area in which AMD does hold an advantage is price, Brookwood said. The Athlon XP 1800+ will cost $252, while Intel sells its 2GHz Pentium 4 for $562, according to pricing information on the company's Web site. "Unless Intel or its customers are willing to lower the price of its 1.9 GHz and 2 GHz to match what AMD is selling the 1800+ for, I think consumers will consider them both," Brookwood said.

Systems based on the Athlon XP will be available from Compaq Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. in the U.S. and from NEC Computers International BV in Europe, Bode said.

The 1.53-GHz Athlon XP 1800+ is priced at $252; the 1.47-GHz 1700+ costs $190; the 1.4-GHz 1600+ is priced at $160; and the 1.33-GHz 1500+ is $130. Those prices are for 1,000-unit quantities, a standard measurement for chip prices.

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