First tests of Athlon 64 PCs: Fastest yet

First tests of Athlon 64 PCs: Fastest yet

Tests undertaken by IDG indicate that new systems featuring Advanced Micro Devices’ Athlon 64 CPU are producing some of the fastest benchmark scores yet.

The new chips are the Athlon 64 FX-51, a high-end 2.2 GHz chip with dual-channel memory; and the more mainstream Athlon 64 3200+, which runs at 2GHz and has single-channel memory. Competitor Intel has also launched the new Pentium 4 With Hyperthreading Extreme Edition. First tests find it doesn’t beat AMD’s entry, but the race is close.

Tested on several configurations of personal computers, the 64-bit processor proved to pack some punch.

On average, the Athlon 64 FX-51 systems notched a PC WorldBench 4 score of 142 — the fastest yet. The Athlon 64 3200+ unit from ABS scored 140, and a comparably configured Intel Pentium 4 comparison PC from Alienware managed 126. The scores for three previously tested 32-bit Athlon XP 3200+ PCs averaged 136.

All tests were performed with 32-bit software. AMD knew 64-bit desktop computing wouldn’t be ready for prime time right away, so the company made sure its 64-bit Athlon hybrid processors could also run today’s 32-bit software. And PC World’s initial tests show the chips run them very well.

Systems running the FX-51 showed a pronounced improvements in some of the more CPU-intensive tests. In particular, they were about 44 per cent faster, on average, than the P4 unit in IDG’s AutoCAD test. The FX-51 PCs also stood out on Premiere tests, and posted top scores on the Photoshop and VideoWave tests. The P4-based PC had the best score in IDG’s Musicmatch test.

In both games tests, the FX-51 PCs were again the clear winners, posting noticeably higher frame rates at multiple resolutions. (Lower resolutions demonstrate CPU power more than higher resolutions because the graphics subsystem contributes more at higher resolution.)

Besides adding 64-bit capabilities, AMD has made other improvements to its newest CPUs. They include a 1MB L2 cache (up from 512KB), a faster speed system bus based on Hypertransport technology, and new SSE 2 instructions. Probably the most important change, however, is AMD’s move to an on-chip memory controller.

Traditionally, the memory controller resides on the motherboard as part of the chip set, connected to the CPU via the frontside bus. AMD’s Athlon XP offers a maximum frontside bus speed of 400MHz; Intel’s latest P4s have a maximum of 800 MHz. By integrating the memory controller, AMD gives memory a private channel to the CPU so it no longer shares a pipe with other system components. Unlike on-board CPU cache, the integrated memory controller runs at the memory speed, not CPU speed.

“The on-board memory controller provides more bandwidth and drops the latency,” general manager at analysis firm MicroDesign Resources, Kevin Krewell, said. Lower latency means less time between when the CPU asks for data from memory and when it gets it.

The arrival of 64-bit desktop computing is at hand: AMD’s launch of its Athlon 64 chips — along with Apple Computer’s release of its G5 desktops — means 64-bit processors, once reserved for servers and high-end workstations, are now in systems available on retail shelves.

In time, 64-bit systems could change the face of desktop computing. That’s because a 64-bit processor can run longer, more complex instructions than a 32-bit chip, improving the performance of data-intensive tasks such as audio and video encoding, advanced engineering design apps, and, naturally, games.

Equally important is a 64-bit CPU’s capability to recognise and use much more memory. Today’s 32-bit chips, including Intel’s Pentium 4 and AMD’s Athlon XP, can address a maximum of 4GB of memory split between the OS and applications.

Few desktops have that much memory, and even fewer apps use it. But in time and with ever more complex software, that limitation may become a bottleneck, making a 64-bit processor’s theoretical capability to address a whopping 16 billion gigabytes of memory quite attractive.

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