AMD Ships 1-GHz Athlon

SAN FRANCISCO (03/06/2000) - Advanced Micro Devices Inc. beats Intel Corp. to the punch Monday, launching its 1-GHz Athlon processor. You can buy one of the fast new systems from Compaq Computer Corp. and Gateway 2000 Inc., and PC World.com's exclusive WorldBench 2000 test results prove the CPU delivers its promised boost.

Intel's fastest Pentium III chip currently runs at 800 MHz, but Intel will probably respond to AMD's salvo with faster chips in days, not weeks, says one industry analyst. Even so, Intel's 850-MHz systems hold up well against AMD's newest CPUs in early benchmark tests. The 1-GHz Compaq Presario 5900Z scored 154 on the PC WorldBench 2000 benchmark test: It runs about 11 percent faster than the Compaq Presario 5900Z-850 also tested, which scored 139. Note that the 1-GHz Presario has 256MB of SDRAM memory while the 850-MHz Presario shipped with 128MB of memory. But the extra memory didn't seem to make much difference on PC World's tests.

The 1-GHz CPUs are among the first to be tested with the new PC WorldBench 2000. The test is based, like its predecessor PC WorldBench 98, on real-world applications. But the tests also differ enough that PC WorldBench 2000 scores should not be directly compared with scores achieved with PC WorldBench 98.

Athlon Systems for Sale

The 1-GHz Athlon Presario test machine PC World tested has a 40GB hard drive, 8X CD-Rewritable drive, 10X DVD-ROM drive, network interface card, and a 19-inch monitor; it's priced at $3799. That's not cheap, but if you want or need every bit of speed, or you just want bragging rights, the 1-GHz machine may beckon.

The 850-MHz Athlon Presario has a 40X CD-ROM drive, a 20GB hard drive, and a 19-inch monitor for a more palatable $2564. If you want this Compaq 850-MHz Athlon machine loaded up like the 1-GHz system, it'll cost $3452--about$347 less than the 1-GHz model. That's an attractive choice for people who can live without the 11 percent performance gain of the 1-GHz machine.

Gateway's first 1-GHz Select 1000 PC scored 157 on PC WorldBench 2000,which is comparable to the Compaq system's 154 score. The Gateway system tested is priced at $3308 and has 128MB of RAM, a 30GB hard drive, 8X/32X DVD-ROM drive, CD-RW drive, a 56-kilobits-per-second modem, and a 19-inch monitor. Gateway's standard-configuration 1-GHz model does not include a CD-RW drive and has less snazzy speakers, which brings the price down to $2999.

The PC WorldBench 2000 score for the 1-GHz Gateway is a 5 percent jump from the 850-MHz Gateway, which scored 150. That system, the Gateway Select 850,comes with 128MB of memory, a 30GB hard drive, a 8X/32X DVD ROM drive, and 56-kbps modem, and 19-inch monitor, for a price tag of $2699.

A not-for-sale 1-GHz reference box that AMD built for PC World's testing earned a 159 PC WorldBench 2000 score. That is about 4 percent faster than the fastest 850-MHz Athlon machine PC World has tested, from CyberMax.

Intel Holds its Own; Pentium III-800s Soar The PC WorldBench 2000 ratings of all the Athlon-1GHz systems look pretty similar to the fastest 800-MHz Intel Pentium III system we've tested to date, from Gateway. That system scored a 156.

Why would the two 1-GHz Athlon systems score so similarly to an 800-MHz PIII?

Probably because the latest PIII chips have an on-die, full-speed 256-KB L2 cache.

The current Athlon chips have an off-die, half-speed 512-KB cache. The PIII's on-die L2 cache offers more of a performance boost than the larger, off-die L2 cache of the Athlon. (Nor is the tested Gateway PIII system running Rambus.) AMD recognizes the off-die L2's limitations. Company executives have said they will launch "Thunderbird," an improved Athlon processor with an on-die, full-speed L2 cache, between April and June. There's no word yet on the initial frequency speed of that chip or the size of its L2 cache.

AMD Snubs Intel

AMD's 1-GHz Athlon announcement comes months ahead of its stated release date, and apparently hit under arch-rival Intel's radar. In recent months, Intel has been forced to crank up the frequencies on its Pentium III chips to keep pace with the once-trailing AMD. Intel announced its PIII-800 last December before it could produce the chip in full volume, causing some vendors to delay shipping systems with the newest chips for months.

Intel seemed poised to jump back in front in February when it showed production-ready 1-GHz PIII machines from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM at the Intel Developer's Forum. Executives said the chip would soon ship in limited quantities, and in volume after the middle of the year.

But AMD got there first. Spokesperson Drew Prairie says the company was able to launch the processor early because "things just came together nicely." In addition to the 1-GHz chip, AMD is announcing its 900- and 950-MHz Athlon chips Monday. Prairie declined to predict how the accelerated launch date might change the rest of AMD's road map, or how fast the next processor leap might be.

Does Speed Sacrifice Quality?

Is the accelerated production of such high-speed chips hurting processor quality? That's unlikely, says Nathan Brookwood, chip analyst for Insight 64.Neither AMD's 1-GHz Athlon chip or the expected 1-GHz Pentium III chip from Intel is a brand-new processor, he says. Rather, each is a refinement of existing designs. If either company were skipping tests on a new design to rush it to market, problems might crop up, but that's not the case.

Instead, the 1-GHz chips expected from both companies are likely the results of careful monitoring of current production, he says. Since chip manufacturing is an imperfect science, a 1-GHz chip can come from a line producing slower chips.

Traditionally, those high-speed chips are pulled out and held like museum pieces, but now both companies test them for reliability, ship them out, and charge top dollar for them, Brookwood says.

"The 1-GHz mark is so emotionally laden and full of marketing potential," he says, both companies want to reach it first.

Brookwood expects a 1-GHz photo finish, with the trailing company releasing its chip within days instead of weeks.

A Note About PC WorldBench 2000

These tests of the 1-GHz Athlon systems are among the first use of PC WorldBench 2000, an update to the PC WorldBench benchmark tests. PC WorldBench 2000 is based on 11 real-world applications: Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and Visio; Lotus WordPro and 123; Netscape navigator; Intuit Quicken; Adobe PhotoShop; and Corel PhotoPaint.

The PC WorldBench 2000 score reflects a system's performance compared with a baseline system: a Hewlett-Packard Pavilion 8380 desktop with a 400-MHz Pentium II processor and 96MB of memory. The baseline system's PC WorldBench 2000 score is 100. If another system achieves a score of 110, that system is 10 percent faster than the baseline HP Pavilion when performing basic business tasks.

PC WorldBench 2000 scores should not be compared with PC WorldBench 98 scores reported previously. The PC WorldBench 98 scores are not equivalent to PC WorldBench 2000 numbers. PC World will retest systems when appropriate, to determine their PC WorldBench 2000 scores.

Laurianne McLaughlin and Jeff Kuta of PC World contributed to this report.

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