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Details of new chips emerging

Next week's Microprocessor Forum will provide more information on AMD's K7, Intel's Willamette, and other forthcoming chips.

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Advanced Micro Devices will provide the details surrounding its next generation microprocessor, the K7, next week at the Microprocessor Forum in San Jose, California, and in all likelihood ignite a debate on whether the company has come up with a way to expand into the performance computing market.

Future chip technologies from Intel, National Semiconductor, and others will also be discussed.

The K7, which will be commercially released in the first half of 1999, will come close to the performance of Intel's future Katmai chips, and may even surpass these speedy processors in certain respects, according to Linley Gwennap, publisher of Microprocessor Report, which is published by conference host MicroDesign Resources.

Among other features, the K7 will run at 500 MHz and higher and use a new technology for the "system bus," a conduit which allows the processor to talk to other components in the computer. The new EV6 system bus is from Digital, according to the company.

Unlike current K6 processors, the K7 will connect to PC circuit boards through a "Slot A" design, which will be mechanically equivalent to Intel's Slot 1 connection technology used today in Pentium II processors. AMD will also give an update on the K6-3, a 450-MHz version of the K6-2 with integrated cache memory.

The K7 will initially come out on the widely used 0.25-micron manufacturing process and be made with aluminum wires, according to AMD CEO Jerry Sanders. Later, however, the chip will be moved to the more advanced 0.18-micron process and be constructed of copper.

By 2000, it will run at 1000 MHz, the company has said.

If these chips, especially the K7, can be shipped in volume, and if computer vendors adopt it, AMD could find itself moving into mainstream machines, say observers.

Those "ifs," however, remain fairly large. The K7 is AMD's most daunting project to date and AMD has a spotty track record for getting up to volume manufacturing. Further, the design of the chip is completely original, which means that the company will not be able to leverage the companion chips, PC circuit boards, and other technology designed for Intel machines. In other words, these third party vendors will have to come up with entirely new products to suit the K7, which potentially increases their costs and could hamper adoption.

Chips for the next millennium
Chip Market Speed Release Date
Intel      
Celeron Desktop 366 MHz Q1 99
Katmai Desktop 450 MHz Q1 99
Tanner Workstations 500 MHz 1H 99
Coppermine Desktop 600 MHz 2H 99
Cascades Servers 600 MHz 2H 99
Merced Servers 800 MHz mid-2000
Willamette Desktop 1000 MHz 2001
Foster Workstations 1000 MHz 2001
McKinley Servers 1000 MHz 2001
AMD      
K6-2 Desktop 400 MHz Q4 98
K6-3 Desktop 450 MHz Q1 99
K7 Desktop 500 MHz 1H 99
Source: Various

Since AMD can't use the same Intel silicon building blocks, computer vendors can't plug into these economies of scale, according to Mark Edelstone, semiconductor analyst for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.

The chip will be one of the likely highlights of the two-day conference, which will take place on October 13 and 14 in the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose.

As for chips based around the Intel architecture, Intel is expected to provide more details on its 64-bit Merced chip, as well as more on the recently unveiled plans for the Willamette and Foster chips that will succeed the Pentium II and Xeon chip families in 2001. Foster chips represent a spanking new 32-bit chip architecture for Intel based on esoteric-sounding but critical new technologies such as "instruction trace cache" and "deep pipelining."

Additionally, National will display samples of its upcoming MXi chip, a new version of its current MII processor with integrated 3D graphics silicon. The chip is slated for a commercial release by the first quarter of 1999. National will also give details on the "Jalapeno" processor which is due in 2000.

Newcomer Rise Technology , meanwhile, will show samples of its mP6, a low-powered, inexpensive chip clone for notebooks that the company hopes will ignite a discount market for portables.

"We will see $800 notebooks by the end of the year," said David Lin, Rise's CEO.

In the Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) chip realm Compaq will sketch out details of the 21364, the next generation Alpha chip that will reach speeds of 1,000 MHz and more while Hewlett-Packard will provide further details on the PA-RISC roadmap.

But AMD, which has gained ground dramatically in the low-cost PC market of late, should still attract much of the attention. The issues surrounding the K7 deal with execution. History does not serve AMD well here. The company found itself mired in more than six months of financial losses last year because of manufacturing problems with the launch of the K6.

"They've never done a greenfield project before," noted Ashok Kumar. "Given their history of product launches, you have to say, 'good luck.'" Despite reporting a profit for the first time in over a year this week, the company's stock has been in decline, which partially reflects skepticism about the company, he said.

The chip's success will ultimately depend on whether PC circuit board and chipset companies choose to support the new Digital EV6 bus. AMD has been able to gain support in the past because it cloned Intel technology. In turn, this meant that PC circuit board manufacturers and computer system vendors could adopt the chip fairly easily.

Price will also continue to be a problem. "AMD should be able to maintain its share in 1999 and even see some growth. Sizable gains, however, will be more difficult to come by without aggressive pricing that would jeopardize profitability," Gwennap wrote in a recent issue of Microprocessor Report.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network, publisher of News.com.

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