AMD shuns MHz in bid for top chips

Advanced Micro Devices is to embark on a branding strategy for its news Athlon XP chips which avoids using specific megahertz...

Advanced Micro Devices is to embark on a branding strategy for its news Athlon XP chips which avoids using specific megahertz ratings.

AMD's True Performance Initiative labels Athlon XP chips based on overall system performance when running PC applications, not on individual clock speeds. Familiar megahertz ratings have been replaced by performance ratings, such as 1800+, on the four new Athlon XP chips,.

Ranked by performance, the Athlon XP 1500+ chip uses a 1.33GHz processor, the 1600+ equates to a 1.4GHz chip, the 1700+ to a 1.47GHz chip, and the 1800+ a 1.53GHz processor.

The sudden downplaying of megahertz speeds from AMD, which carved out more than a 20% share of the PC processor market by publicly racing rival chipmaker Intel to the 1GHz chip speed and beyond, comes in the aftermath of Intel's release of its Pentium 4 processor.

AMD believes that Intel missed the point when it designed its Intel Pentium 4 chip, which for the first time departed from Intel's x86 processor architecture to a new architecture Intel named NetBurst, said Linda Kohout, a brand manager for AMD's Duron processor.

According to Kohout, Pentium 4 chips may be hitting hyper-GHz marks internally, but overall system performance is actually dropping.

"With the Pentium 4, the amount of work went down for the first time, as much as 20%," Kohout said. "Even though the Pentium 4's [megahertz] goes up, work per clock cycle actually goes down."

An Intel source regarded AMD's rebranding strategy as a defensive move from a company that cannot compete with Intel's Pentium 4 chips, which have been demonstrated running as fast as 3GHz.

With its True Performance Initiative strategy, AMD has stumbled on a way of thinking that those in the high-performance server arena have known for some time, said Joe Jones, chief executive officer of BridgePoint Technical Manufacturing and a former AMD employee.

"But it's going to be a hard sell," said Jones, who explained that in high-performance computing markets, where 200MHz processors can deliver the equivalent of 800MHz chips in certain architectures, the stand-alone clock speed of chips is still a major performance indicator for customers.

"It's a different kind of sell and will take some real marketing," Jones said.

AMD chips have not fared well in the lucrative corporate PC and notebook market so selling Athlon XPs could be particularly tough as consumers, the people who are most used to judging chips by their clock speed, represent the most likely market for the Athlon XP line.

"AMD doesn't have a ton of money to spend on marketing dollars, compared to Intel," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. "They are going to do everything they can, scream from the loudest rooftops, work with [manufacturers] to get systems marketed and the 1800+ model numbers on the products without saying what they specifically mean."

The True Performance Initiative is AMD's second attempt to downplay the clock speeds of its processors in the face of competition from Intel. In the early 1990s, AMD unsuccessfully attempted to draw emphasis away from clock speeds and to system performance with what the company called the "P-rating" for chips such as the AMD K5. But the strategy failed, and instead of competing with Intel's Pentium chips, the K5 was positioned as a low-cost Pentium alternative much like the Cyrix 6x86. AMD eventually returned to rating its chips by clock speed.

"AMD tried this same thing in the early '90s with the P-rating. It didn't seem to catch on, so I hope AMD knows what to do different this time," said Chuck Dunbar, an associate research scientist at the Thad Cochran Research Centre.

Redesigns within Athlon XP chips could make a difference in setting the new AMD chips apart from Intel's products. Brookwood said previous Athlons built on AMD's older Thunderbird core "were introduced at about 1GHz, and [AMD] scaled it to about 1.4GHz, and one of the problems was not that it couldn't run fast, but it got so hot it would self-destruct," he said.

With its Athlon XP chips, AMD has engineered what the company calls QuantiSpeed architecture, which delivers as much as a 25% performance advantage against Intel processors in a broad array of real-world applications, such as digital media, office productivity, and 3-D gaming, officials said.

"We believe we will have OEMs from multiple channels," AMD's Kohout said. "We have broad chipset and motherboard support."

The actual internal clock speeds of the Athlon XP chips are somewhat slower than the relative performance they deliver within a complete PC system, but the technology behind the effort is sound, Brookwood said. Still, he agreed that the marketing of the new Athlons would aim to convince consumers accustomed to the familiar megahertz ratings.

"From a technical standpoint the 1.53GHz Athlon is in many ways as good a performer as a 1.8GHz Pentium 4," Brookwood said. "But part of AMD's problem is Intel has introduced faster Pentium 4s and as best I can tell, the AMD [chips] are still not as fast as Intel's fastest [Pentium 4s]."

AMD has suffered a number of setbacks in its quest to become an Intel contender with staying power.

PC maker Gateway recently dropped AMD chips from its desktop and notebook computers, opting for Intel chips instead. AMD's chip sales for the third quarter of 2001 brought equally bad news, falling 22% from the previous quarter. Also, experts say Compaq's decision last May to commit to Intel's 64-bit Itanium processor road map has limited AMD's efforts to make headway into the server market.

On top of that, AMD recently closed its No. 14 and No. 15 fabrication plants. The plants produced communication chips and other silicon not directly related to PC processors or memory. This, according to BridgePoint's Jones, indicates that a once-diverse AMD is putting "all the wood behind one arrow" to continue almost single-mindedly in its pursuit of Intel in the PC processor and memory market.

Speed to the XP degree
AMD's QuantiSpeed architecture gives new Athlon XP chips advantages on many fronts.

  • Hardware data prefetch technology for repeated calculations

  • Ability to deliver 1.8GHz performance from a 1.53GHz Athlon XP chip

  • Broad chipset support from nVidia, Acera, and Via

  • Faster data retrieval from main memory with Translation Look-aside Buffers

  • Better floating-point performance

  • Smaller, faster superscaler microarchitecture

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