AMD pondering bus speed increase for next Athlon XP

A report that Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) will increase the front-side bus speed of its next Athlon XP processor was downplayed by the company Thursday, which said it is still evaluating its product plans. But those plans will need to take shape soon if the next Athlon XP is to avoid becoming the latest processor from AMD to be delayed past the expected launch date.

A story on the Taiwanese news Web site Digitimes.com Thursday claimed that AMD has told its motherboard and chipset partners in Taiwan that it is planning to increase the speed of the Athlon XP's front-side bus from 333MHz to 400MHz for its next release, reportedly in May. The front-side bus acts as the main highway between the processor core and the memory module, and is a key component to overall processor performance.

AMD's next chip will be known as the Athlon XP 3200+, said John Crank, senior brand manager for AMD's Athlon product line, during an interview a few weeks ago about the release of the company's current performance leader, the Athlon XP 3000+. The new chip is expected to be released about the middle of the year, Crank said at the time.

When contacted about its plans for the front-side bus of the Athlon XP 3200+, AMD said that it does not currently have plans for a 400MHz front-side bus, but is evaluating the technology based on customer feedback.

While the final decision has not been made, AMD will likely include the faster front-side bus in a bid to remain competitive with rival Intel Corp. until AMD's Athlon64 is launched in September, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Intel plans to launch a Pentium 4 with an 800MHz front-side bus, as well as faster chipsets, before the launch of Prescott, its first 90 nanometer chip, later this year.

Despite the differences in clock speed and bus speed, AMD says its processors perform equal to or better than Pentium 4 chips due to a more efficient processor core that does more work per clock cycle. Benchmarks and other independent tests show the chips have fairly comparable performance when measuring chips of equal speed grades, depending on the applications used in the testing process.

In order for the Athlon XP 3200+ to launch on time, partners of the company will need two to three months of lead time to validate their chipsets and motherboards for the new front-side bus, analysts said.

If the current motherboards and chipsets manufactured for AMD processors have all the functionality required to support the faster front-side bus, then the vendors would need two to three months to test and validate their products for the new processor, said Kevin Krewell, senior editor of the Microprocessor Report in San Jose, California. If any changes are required for the motherboard and chipset to support the increased speeds, that might take ten weeks, plus the time required for the testing and validation process, he said.

The last time AMD increased the speed of its front side bus to 333MHz for the launch of the Athlon XP 2700+ and 2800+, it was a fairly straightforward changeover that didn't require the extra hardware modifications, Krewell said. But AMD's partners, such as graphics chip maker Nvidia Corp., were aware of the planned change, and even encouraged AMD to make the switch, he said.

AMD will also have to wait until all of its partners have validated their products, as to launch the chip without full support would give certain component vendors a leg up on the competition, Krewell said.

If AMD is planning to launch the Athlon XP 3200+ by the middle of the year, it would have needed to inform its partners around this time to ensure an on-time launch, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at market research company Insight64 in Saratoga, California.

The stakes are high for AMD this year, as it looks to rebound from a disappointing 2002 with the new products and a focus on becoming profitable by the third quarter. By extending the amount of time the Barton core is available, AMD can keep up with Intel's products as it prepares for one of the most significant product launches in the company's history.

"As long as they stay competitive on performance, they can maintain their average selling prices and not waste the Barton core by drawing out the big gun (Athlon64) too early," said Shane Rau, an analyst with IDC.

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