AMD prepares new Athlons, awaits Barton and Hammer

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. is scheduled to launch its fastest desktop processors yet Tuesday, the Athlon XP 2700+ and 2800+, according to sources.

The 2800+ and 2700+ represent AMD's latest efforts to one-up rival chipmaker Intel Corp., which it trails by a wide margin in desktop and mobile processor shipments according to data from Mercury Research Inc. They will feature a 333MHz front side bus, an upgrade over previous Athlon XPs with 266MHz buses.

"The front side bus is like the main highway inside a PC, carrying all kinds of data going in and out of the CPU," said Shane Rau, research analyst, semiconductors at IDC in Mountain View, California. (IDC is a division of International Data Group Inc., parent company of IDG News Service.)Improving the speed of the front side bus generates more of an improvement in overall processor performance than the relatively small clock speed increases expected in the two new Athlons, he said.

"It's important for AMD to make it evident that Athlon still has a long lifetime," which requires regular speed increases to satisfy AMD's customers, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research Inc. in Cave Creek, Arizona.

AMD announced last month it would release the 2800+ and 2700+ chips, which are based on the Thoroughbred core, before releasing new chips based on its new Barton core, which will feature 512K bytes of Level 2 cache, or memory that is external to the processor. The chips based on Thoroughbred and Barton cores are 32-bit processors. Furthermore, the company also said the release of Athlon and Opteron processors based on AMD's 64-bit Hammer technology would be delayed.

"As Hammer comes out and takes over their performance lineup, Athlon will take over their value systems. Having new speed grades demonstrates the processor has new life," McCarron said.

Athlon chips based on the Barton core will come out in the first quarter of 2003, before the 64-bit Hammer chips, according to AMD. This means AMD will be able to position its Athlon processors as a high-performance yet low-cost processor as compared to the Hammer chips, McCarron said. The company has previously announced it will phase out its lowest-priced product, the Duron processor, by the end of the year.

However, rival chipmaker Intel is expected to release a 3.06GHz Pentium 4 desktop processor equipped with its hyperthreading technology in the fourth quarter. Intel's hyperthreading technology allows software written for multiple-processor systems to run on a single processor.

This could erase any performance gain realized by AMD's forthcoming technologies, but it's too early to know how the latest battles between AMD and Intel will turn out, said McCarron.

"Both (companies) are trying to crank out as much performance at the lowest prices they can in order to present the best value picture," said Rau.

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