AMD's Athlon revs up to 500-, 600-MHz speeds

AMD's Athlon revs up to 500-, 600-MHz speeds

By David Essex
Special to GCN

Intel-alternative CPUs have largely been limited to playing in the minor leagues of low-cost PCs'good enough for a lot of uses but lacking the critical power needed for high-end performance. Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s new Athlon chip, however, appears ready for the big leagues.

It's a seventh-generation chip that jumps ahead of Intel Corp.'s current Pentium III offerings with better performance on most tests, and has the industry's fastest system bus, a 200-MHz data pipeline that breaks the Intel mold. Industry analysts say the Athlon, formerly known as K7, represents a gamble by AMD to compete with Intel for the high-end segment of the PC market.

Officials at AMD said the first Athlon systems will be available in the third quarter of this year at clock speeds of 500, 550 and 600 MHz. Chip prices will range between $324 and $699, roughly $200 less than Intel Pentium IIIs running at the same clock speed. Intel, meanwhile, is expected to rush a 600-MHz version into production to steal some of the Athlon's thunder, according to several industry observers.

Falling short

AMD chips have long been criticized for subpar benchmark numbers on the floating-point math operations that are so critical to the performance of graphics software. Not so the Athlon, according to preliminary benchmarks released by industry analysts.

'They're really delivering performance comparable to, or in some ways better than, the Pentium III,' said Linley Gwennap, editorial director of Microprocessor Report. Mike Feibus, an analyst at Mercury Research in Scottsdale, Ariz., said that with the Athlon, AMD is 'coming in at the top end of the mainstream. They've done a lot of things right.'

The Athlon's 200-MHz system bus should not suffer any compatibility problems with existing software, analysts said, because of a supporting chip set on Athlon motherboards.

But the new bus is a departure from Intel's 100-MHz standard and provides little benefit without 200-MHz RAM chips, expected to debut sometime next year.

'From an add-in card standpoint, there really shouldn't be much of an issue,' Gwennap said.

Tips for buyers

  • 'Buy the most amount of horsepower for the least amount of money,' said analyst Mark Margevicius of GartnerGroup Inc. of Stamford, Conn. The sweet spot is an Intel-equivalent 350- or 400-MHz.

  • Don't worry about Microsoft Windows-Intel compatibility. Intel sows fear, uncertainty and doubt about moving to a competing CPU, but issues of CPU and system-bus compatibility with industry-standard peripherals have been solved in recent years, analyst Linley Gwenapp of Microprocessor Report said.

  • Take claims of new, higher bus speeds with a grain of salt. The main data path in PCs has begun a rapid evolution that's out of sync with memory, CPUs and peripherals. Next-generation 133- and 200-MHz buses are like a spanking-new freeway with little traffic; high-speed Direct RAMbus and other types of RAM, coming within the next year or two, will be needed to take full advantage.

  • Focus on a computer system's service, support and maintenance aspects rather than clock speed, Margevicius said.

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