Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) has been claiming for some time that there is more to performance than clock speed in its battle with chip giant Intel, and now the company is ready to bet on it with the launch of its Athlon XP family of processors.
The new line of four Athlon XP processors, available Tuesday, run at clock speeds ranging from 1.33GHz to 1.53GHz, 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 to previous Athlons and the competition. For example, AMD says the 1800+ outperforms other processors running 1.8GHz, although the chip only runs at 1.53GHz, 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 does not equal performance, Bode said. "Other markets already realized a long time ago that clock speed is not everything," he 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 began shipping its 1GHz Alpha chip in servers, while the fastest version of Sun Microsystems' UltraSparc III chip runs at 900MHz.
"At the end of the day, consumers need to be looking at how applications actually perform," Bode said.
In a briefing in San Francisco Tuesday morning, AMD Chairman and Chief Executive Officer W.J. "Jerry" Sanders slammed Intel. Common sense says that innovation should improve things, Sanders said, but Intel's innovation didn't deliver a real performance boost from the Pentium III to the Pentium 4, Sanders said. The Pentium 4 does less work per clock cycle than does the Pentium III, so it delivers lower performance at a given clock speed, he said.
"Faster now doesn't necessarily mean better, and we have Intel to thank for that," Sanders said, accusing Intel of taking advantage of "consumer ignorance" among users who confuse clock speed with actual performance.
So as well as taking the spotlight away from clock speeds on its Athlon XP processors, AMD plans to start the True Performance Initiative, which would 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 2002.
Until a new standard comes into place, AMD released the Athlon XP family, the first family of processors based on the new chip core formerly codenamed Palomino. The "XP" modifier signifies "extreme performance for Windows XP," the company said.
Among the improvements of the Athlon XP compared to previous versions are a 20 per cent reduction in power consumption, enhanced multimedia and 3D 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 with Insight 64. In comparison, Intel launched its 2GHz Pentium 4 chip at its developer forum in August. 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 where AMD does hold an advantage is price, Brookwood said. The Athlon XP 1800+ will cost $US252, while Intel's sells its 2GHz Pentium 4 to customers for $562, according to pricing information on Intel's Web site. "Unless Intel or its customers are willing to lower the price of its 1.9GHz and 2GHz 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 Monday from Compaq and Hewlett-Packard in the US, and from NEC Computers International BV in Europe, Bode said.
The HP models with the processor won't be as visible to consumers as those running Intel processors, though, as the Athlon XP is only available as an option through HP's build-to-order program. So although customers won't see floor models running the processor, they will be able to order systems using it through HP kiosks, a spokeswoman for HP said.
Consumers are likely to see a version of the current Athlon XP processor for "thin and light" notebooks in the first quarter of next year, as well as a new model of the Athlon XP that outperforms the 1800+, Sanders said. "We'll have a model 2000 after the Christmas season and a model 3000 after that," Sanders said. "We'll probably have a model 10,000 by the time they get to 10GHz."
The 1.53GHz Athlon XP 1800+ is priced at $252, the 1.47GHz 1700+ costs $190, the 1.4GHz 1600+ is priced at $160 and the 1.33GHz 1500+ is $130. Prices are for 1,000-unit quantities, a standard measurement for chip prices.