SAN FRANCISCO (06/23/2000) - A jab of megahertz here, an uppercut to the cache memory or bus speed there. So goes the fight between Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. as the two major chip makers spar in the ongoing battle for the title of fastest processor.
In the last round back in March, AMD beat Intel to the punch--by a week--by releasing the first 1-GHz chip for desktop PCs. But Intel's 1-GHz Pentium III processor performed a hair faster than AMD's 1-GHz Athlon CPU--about 5 percent faster on our tests of business apps.
Now AMD is swinging back with a new Athlon processor, code-named Thunderbird, that closes the small performance gap. The new Athlon chip differs from its predecessor in one significant respect: Its Level 2 cache memory is integrated into the processor, so that this memory runs at full speed. That's not groundbreaking--Intel's Coppermine Pentium III chips have had on-die, full-speed Level 2 cache since last October. But our first tests show that T-bird did its intended catch-up job.
AMD will sell the new Athlon processor in speeds ranging from 750 MHz to 1 GHz.
We tested two preproduction PCs equipped with the new chips: Compaq's Presario 7000Z-900, with a 900-MHz Athlon Thunderbird; and CyberMax's Enthusiast K7-800, equipped with an 800-MHz T-bird. Both PCs came with 128MB of 100-MHz SDRAM, Windows 98 SE, a 40GB hard drive, DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, and a 19-inch monitor.
Since AMD is not charging a premium for the improved chip, these new Thunderbird systems won't cost you any more than the original Athlons. Looking for a deal in a power desktop? Our CyberMax system checks in below $2200 and runs business applications nearly as efficiently as 1-GHz systems, which start at about $2900.
Systems with the older Athlon processor will be around as late as August, says AMD spokesman Drew Prairie. So be careful when you're shopping. The new Athlons will be advertised as "AMD Athlon processor with performance enhancing cache memory"--an ungainly name for a sleek chip.
Full-speed Level 2 cache was the only item on AMD's to-do list still needed to bring the Athlon's performance up to that of Intel's Coppermine Pentium III.
The old Athlon provided more L2 cache--512KB--but it was located off the chip, which meant that it ran at between half and a third of the chip's speed, depending on the processor. In addition to 128KB of Level 1 cache, the Athlon Thunderbird has 256KB of Level 2 cache on the chip itself, for a grand total of 384KB of full-speed system cache. The Coppermine Pentium III processors also provide 256KB of on-die Level 2 cache, but they have only 32KB of Level 1 cache, for a total of 288KB.
AMD told us that computers with the improved Athlon processor would run typical business applications faster than the old Athlon systems by one speed grade--or about 50 MHz. They also said that the new processor would deliver an even bigger improvement with data-intensive applications such as CAD. Our first tests seem to bear out both of these claims.
In PC WorldBench 2000 performance tests, which run Microsoft Word and Excel and other business apps, the new Athlon processor's on-die cache gave it a small but measurable performance boost over the Athlon machines that used the old off-die memory scheme. The Thunderbird PCs performed in the same range as PIII systems with the same processor speed.
Would you really notice much of a difference in speed between the old and new Athlon systems in everyday work with ordinary office applications? Probably not. The gains that we saw were enough to put Athlon scores alongside those of the Pentium III, but not enough to appreciably speed up everyday tasks. On the other hand, if you work in CAD or other data- and graphics-intensive applications, you should see a noticeable difference.
The Systems Weigh In
A spot check of vendors that sell both Athlon and Pentium III desktop PCs revealed prices to be about the same at equal clock speeds. So choose carefully. If you push your PC to the limit with heavy number-crunching or graphical operations, opt for an Athlon Thunderbird machine with the best graphics card available. If you use mostly Microsoft Office-type apps and a Web browser, note that power desktops with 800-MHz to 1-GHz Athlon, Athlon Thunderbird, and PIII chips will perform quite similarly. You'll save hundreds of dollars by opting for an 800- to 900-MHz system and may never miss the last bit of speed you'd get from a 1-GHz box.
Bargain-oriented vendors may offer the best deals on Thunderbird PCs. The CyberMax Athlon-800 machine, for instance, costs $2149--almost $800 less than Compaq's $2930 Presario 7000Z-900. Though you get a faster Athlon processor with the Compaq, the two systems performed virtually the same on business apps in our tests.
The CyberMax Enthusiast K7-800 earned a PC WorldBench 2000 score of 153, identical to that of the average of two desktop PCs equipped with Pentium III-800 chips, and about 5 percent better than PCs with the original Athlon-800 chip.
The 900-MHz Compaq Presario 7000Z-900 also earned a PC WorldBench score of 153, a disappointing performance compared with that of the 800-MHz CyberMax and the PIII-800s. (Compaq machines run a lot of utility software in the background, which tends to slow them a bit on these tests.) But the new Compaq did match the performance of an earlier Compaq equipped with a 1-GHz original Athlon.
No 1-GHz Athlon T-bird machines were available by our deadline, so we couldn't pit them against Intel's 1-GHz Pentium III. Both the CyberMax and Compaq PCs ran business applications about 7 percent slower than a 1-GHz PIII. That's not a very significant difference on this suite of tests (see Business Apps Test Report, page 46).
Behind The Scenes
In our graphics-intensive tests, the T-Bird computers generally performed better than counterparts that had the older Athlon chip, but both really shone in AutoCAD tasks, where they easily beat previous Athlon systems. Probably thanks to the Athlon's superior floating-point capabilities, they also outran a powerful Dell PIII-866 system by about 2.5 percent in the AutoCAD test. Both PCs came with graphics cards based on NVidia's GeForce 256 chip set; the Compaq's card, using DDR memory, helped that PC perform notably better than the CyberMax in many tests (see Graphics Test Report, page 46).
These are good times for AMD, a long-beleaguered David that has stumbled more often than it has stood up to Intel's Goliath. Its new Athlon Thunderbird chip matches the Pentium III, which means AMD once again fuels desktops just as powerfully as Intel does. And with a new plant gearing up in Dresden, Germany, AMD appears to have a handle on supply. The profits front looks auspicious, too. In the first quarter of 2000, AMD sales broke a billion dollars for the first time, with $189 million in profits--almost triple its 1999 fourth-quarter earnings. That's still a far cry from Intel's $2.7 billion first-quarter net income, but it's quite a turnaround from AMD's 1999 second-quarter loss of $162 million.
Throughout this year, Intel has run up against a supply shortfall in its top-end processors, an unusual problem for the chip giant. By the third quarter of this year, the company should be shipping its 1-GHz Pentium III chips in volume, reports Intel spokesperson George Alfs. At press time in June, a spot check of major system vendors revealed that several of them were still waiting for the 1-GHz Pentium III. These Intel shortages have helped AMD.
But by this fall, Intel could steamroll Athlon with its long-anticipated Willamette processor for high-end desktop PCs. Willamette is expected to debut at 1.4 to 1.5 GHz and use an entirely new microprocessor architecture, including a 400-MHz front-side bus and a chip set that will use Rambus memory.
This fall AMD also plans to release its second-generation Athlon chip set, the 760, which will add support for a 266-MHz system bus and DDR main memory, which is cheaper than Rambus memory. Athlon processors will challenge Intel's clock speeds for the remainder of the year, says AMD representative Prairie.
In the second half of 2000, AMD plans to release a server version of Athlon, code-named Mustang, that will hold up to a megabyte of on-die cache. In addition, the company will ship its first dual processor for high-end workstations and the first mobile Athlon chips for laptops. Finally, the Duron, a budget derivative of the Athlon, will replace the AMD K6-2 chip. The Duron was set to debut in early June, but no systems were ready for testing at that time.
Who'll Wear The Belt?
AMD currently owns about 12 percent of the budget processor market and 7 percent of the high-performance market, according to U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray. AMD hopes to increase its total share to 20 percent by the end of the year.
But that may be pie-in-the-sky, according to Ashok Kumar, managing director of U.S. Bancorp. Kumar says AMD's current market-share numbers are misleading because they include business inherited from failed competitors, like Cyrix and Centaur. AMD has yet to make inroads into Intel's corporate PC stronghold, and it may even lose ground in the value segment when it introduces Duron, Kumar says.
"All of AMD's value competitors basically have disappeared," bequeathing AMD the 10-plus percent market share they had two years ago, says Kumar. "And it will be difficult for vendors to support Duron, which will use a brand-new chip set and motherboards. I'm afraid AMD is stretching optimism beyond the bounds of reason to think they can capture anything beyond 20 percent."
Keith Diefendorff, editor in chief of Microprocessor Report, agrees that AMD still faces a brutal fight. "It's one thing to come out with a product like Athlon and give Intel a bloody nose; it's another thing to compete with Intel, product after product, and stay ahead." To crack the high-end business market, he says, "AMD has to sell server processors, and that's more than just putting out a piece of silicon. You have to support it with a high-quality chip set."
That's a relatively new business for AMD.
Whatever the future brings, PC buyers currently benefit from AMD's presence with competitive prices and extremely powerful PCs for demanding applications.
If you want a fast, loaded PC, an Athlon system with performance-enhancing cache memory may be a true champ.
Thanks to improved cache memory, AMD's newest Athlon chips catch up to Intel's latest PIIIs. In our tests, the first Athlon Thunderbird systems show knockout speeds.
Street price: $2930; 800/345-1518; www.compaq.comCyberMax EnthusiastK7-800Street price: $2149; 800/443-9868; www.cybmax.com.