AMD's low-cost Duron chip takes aim at Celeron

AMD's low-cost Duron chip takes aim at Celeron

Advanced Micro Devices yesterday launched the first members of its new Duron family of low-cost processors, running at 600MHz, 650MHz and 700MHz.

Duron is aimed at value-conscious home and business users, and should be a potent competitor to Intel's Celeron processor in the market for sub-$US1000 PCs, AMD officials said. Analysts agreed, adding that Duron should help AMD keep pace with Celeron's performance and maintain a high level of competition between the two firms.

"What we've seen with the Intel-AMD battle is a level of competition, both in the low-cost and the performance space, that we've really never seen before. As a result, pricing has been far more favourable (for PC buyers) than it would have been," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst with Mercury Research in Arizona.

AMD announced earlier this month that it had begun shipping the Duron in volume to PC makers. While yesterday marks the official launch of the chip, none of the leading PC makers were ready to offer a Duron system yet. AMD said it expects Compaq, Fujitsu-Siemens (in Europe) and NEC (in Japan) to offer Duron systems shortly.

Duron is AMD's first processor for budget PCs that takes advantage of an advanced chip design, or "microarchitecture", that was unveiled last year for its higher-performance Athlon processor. AMD said the design brings several technical improvements over its existing processor for low-cost PCs, the K6-2.

Among the improvements is a speedier 200MHz system bus. The system bus is a conduit that funnels data between the processor and other parts of a PC. The Duron also includes a larger on-chip memory cache than the K6-2, and AMD's Enhanced 3DNow instructions, designed to boost multimedia performance.

Perhaps most importantly, analysts said, the new architecture should allow AMD to keep boosting the clock speed of Duron to keep pace with -- or even stay ahead of -- Intel's Celeron.

"The K6 family has undergone a lot of competitive pressure against Celeron," said Mario Morales, director of semiconductor research with market researcher IDC. "Celeron has proved to be a very scalable product, while the K6-2 has topped off at 550MHz."The fastest version of Intel's Celeron available today runs at 600MHz, but the chip giant later this month plans to release faster versions running at 633MHz, 667MHz and 700MHz, according to a source close to Intel.

Clock speed is only one measure of processor performance, but it's one that PC buyers -- especially consumers -- tend to pay close attention to.

AMD also released the results of various benchmark tests yesterday designed to show that its Duron processor outperforms a Celeron running at the same clock speed by as much as 25 per cent, depending on the application being tested.

Analysts noted that the actual performance of each processor will vary depending on the configuration of a user's PC.

"My gut feeling is that Duron is going to be comparable" in performance to a Celeron, Mercury Research's McCarron said.

As with any new processor, one area of concern for AMD will be assuring an adequate supply of chipsets that work with Duron. Chipsets are collections of chips that surround the main processor in a PC, and a shortage would limit the number of Duron PCs that can be sold.

Besides the chipsets that it can manufacture for itself, AMD will depend initially on only one other source -- Taiwan's Via Technologies -- which makes a compatible chipset called the KT-133. As well as being one of the world's largest chipset manufacturers, Via also happens to be an emerging player in the PC processor market, with its own Cyrix III chip.

AMD officials maintained that the Cyrix III won't compete directly with Duron, because the Cyrix III is aimed at very low-cost PCs and at information appliances. Analysts for the most part agreed, adding that Via is unlikely to risk harming its valuable chipset business in order to harm a rival processor.

Still, Tim Wright, AMD's director of consumer product marketing, admitted that the company is "anxious" to see further chipset suppliers come onto the market.

Later this year or early next year, Acer Laboratories and Silicon Integrated Systems will also launch chipsets that work with Duron, he said.

AMD's processors have traditionally been most popular among consumers, while business buyers have tended to go with Intel-based systems. AMD is stepping up its efforts to make IS managers aware of both the Athlon and Duron processors, with the hope of gaining a share of the business PC market, Wright said.

Prices for the new Durons are $US112 for the 600MHz version, $154 for the 650MHz version, and $192 for the 700MHz version, in 1000-unit quantities, AMD said.

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