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Consumers must wait for newest Athlons

update Advanced Micro Devices announces two new desktop chips, but customers won't see them until November because of AMD's lingering problems in getting high-end chips to market.

update Advanced Micro Devices announced two new desktop chips Tuesday, but customers won't see them until November because of lingering problems in getting its high-end chips to market.

The Athlon XP 2800+ and 2700+ will likely narrow the performance gap with Intel's Pentium 4. AMD's model numbers roughly correspond to the gigahertz speeds of the Pentium 4, which currently tops out at 2.8GHz.

Among the improvements, the new AMD chips will come with a system bus--the data path between the processor and main memory--running at 333MHz. A faster bus increases performance; current Athlons come with a 266MHz bus. Nvidia and Via Technologies will both come out with chipsets for the new chips, the two companies said.

Intel will up the stakes later this quarter with a 3GHz Pentium 4 containing Hyperthreading, a performance-enhancing technology that lets a chip handle more transactions simultaneously, similar to how a two-processor computer works.

Still, the performance race is somewhat theoretical from a consumer's perspective. In recent months, AMD has announced chips but then released them later and in lower quantities than initially expected. In the first half of the year, AMD announced chips the same day that PC makers began to sell computers containing them.

"The volumes probably aren't as high as they would like," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. "It is apparent that they don't have any difficulties in delivering processors with model numbers 2000 and below."

Although PC sales remain slow, any performance gaps can still hurt AMD financially. Intel historically has exploited performance advantages to grab market share in the more-profitable segments and has undercut AMD by price in the mass market. Right now, AMD's fastest chip available in volume is the Athlon XP 2200+, which is about as fast as the slowest Pentium 4 still listed on Intel's price sheets (although slower Pentium 4s remain available in the open market). Intel also has a 2GHz Celeron.

The 2800+ won't appear in computers until late November and will initially be featured only in PCs from gamer specialists such as Alienware and Voodoo, said Ed Ellett, vice president of marketing for AMD.

Major manufacturers won't come out with computers containing the 2700+ until November, the company said.

"This is definitely a little bit of a stretch," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. "I think they are trying to get the announcement out ahead of the 3GHz Pentium 4."

Other AMD chips have been hit by delays as well.

In August, for instance, the company announced the Athlon XP 2400+ and 2600+, stating that the chips would come out in PCs in September. The 2400+ was originally due to come out in the second quarter.

Those chips remain in tight supply, however. No major manufacturer has released a computer containing the 2400+ or 2600+. AMD-authorized "white-box" manufacturers late last week said that they could only get the 2400+ in quantities of 10 drop-shipped directly from AMD. Some dealers said they won't even begin to get these chips until next week.

Ellett said PCs containing these chips started to ship to manufacturers in late September and that PCs containing them would appear sometime in the fourth quarter. The relative lack of chips, though, is not the result of manufacturing problems.

"These are normal yields," Ellett said. "There are no significant problems." Rather, AMD is announcing the chips now to inform the market.

Last month, AMD also delayed "Barton," an enhanced version of the Athlon, and "Clawhammer," a desktop chip containing an entirely new architecture. Barton was originally set to come out in the second half of this year. It will now come out in the first quarter of 2003.

The hotly anticipated Clawhammer, meanwhile, was set to go to PC manufacturers in the fourth quarter and come out in PCs in the first quarter of 2003. It will now set to go to PC makers in the first quarter and hit store shelves late in the first quarter or early in the second quarter.

The delays of Barton and Clawhammer could indicate that AMD is having problems implementing silicon-on-insulator (SOI), a technique for managing electrical current inside chips, according to Kevin Krewell, senior editor of industry newsletter The Microprocessor Report.

Barton originally was to include an SOI layer. AMD subsequently removed the SOI and doubled the cache, a reservoir of memory located near the cache, to 512KB. Clawhammer will have SOI.

The delays, though, may only have a temporary impact on AMD, said McCarron and Brookwood. If Clawhammer lives up to its advanced billing, the company will be able to attract the attention and to experience the sales trajectory that it received when it first came out with the Athlon in 1999.