AMD plays name game in megahertz race

Hoping to counter a perception that its processors are slower than those from rival Intel, AMD is moving away from branding its chips based on megahertz.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
3 min read
Hoping to counter a perception that its processors are slower than those from rival Intel, Advanced Micro Devices is moving away from branding its chips based on megahertz.

Starting next month, the chipmaker will introduce a new Athlon naming plan that reflects the processor's overall performance rather than simply its speed based on megahertz.

The aim is to convince PC buyers not to base their purchasing decisions on clock speed alone, but to also consider the actual performance of the chip, sources say.

"If AMD can succeed in shaping the message...maybe the customer will change his or her view," said Mark Shifrin, analyst with Technology Business Research. "It's a good strategy. It's the only strategy in the face of the inability to increase speed. Hopefully people will see it as a positive and not a negative."

The new nomenclature will use a model number instead of listing the Athlon's clock speed, according to sources familiar with AMD's plans.

In other words, rather than selling a PC with a 1.5GHz Athlon, AMD and PC makers might market an Athlon 1900+ or Athlon E Class computer, for example.

The naming plan is directed at the megahertz gap AMD faces. The company's fastest chip tops out at 1.4GHz, and a 1.5GHz chip is coming. But this week Intel launched its fastest Pentium 4 at 2GHz.

Marketing computers by model number rather than megahertz, of course, represents a sea change for AMD. For years, the company marketed its chips by touting that they were either faster than Intel's or cheaper at the same speed. Through 1999 and 2000, the two companies continually one-upped each other for world's fastest desktop chip.

Because of the way Athlon is designed, a slower Athlon can actually beat a Pentium 4 on some benchmark tests. However, consumers generally base their buying decisions on the number of megahertz. Chip prices also follow megahertz.

AMD's upcoming marketing campaign was reported earlier. However, it was unclear how AMD planned to get around the megahertz issue.

Historically, it hasn't been an easy task.

Others, such as Apple Computer and chipmaker Cyrix, have attempted to use approaches based on chip architecture to make the same argument for years. Apple, for example, has offered demonstrations to show that slower PowerPC chips can outperform Pentium 4 chips at certain tasks. But such efforts have found limited success.

"It's going to be very difficult," Technology Business Research's Shifrin said. Success is "very difficult to predict."

IDC analyst Roger Kay said that the "knowledgeable end of the spectrum" actually does understand the difference between clock speed and overall performance. But, he added, "they shrug their shoulders and say, I can't sell that...to my audience."

New Athlons will likely be named Athlon model XXXX+, sources say, with the number referring to the chip's performance when measured against the Pentium 4. Depending on how AMD rates itself against the Pentium 4, a 1.5GHz Athlon could become an Athlon model 1800+ or possibly an Athlon model 1900+.

The references to models have actually been in use internally at AMD for some time. The company, for example, refers to chips such as its Athlon MP for workstations and servers as the "Model 6."

AMD will also argue that the new strategy is more than just about performance rating. AMD and Cyrix did use performance ratings until recently. Such ratings were popular but took on a negative image, analysts say, because of abuse by Cyrix, which is now part of Via Technologies.

Although the Athlon can't compete on a pure clock-speed basis with the Pentium 4, multiple benchmark tests have shown that slower Athlons keep up with and, in some cases, exceed Pentium 4 in performance.

This is because megahertz, as AMD will emphasize in its marketing, is only half of the performance equation. Performance, according to many inside the industry, is measured by multiplying megahertz by the number of instructions, or commands, the chip can process at the same time.

The Pentium 4 processes up to six instructions per clock. AMD has not disclosed how many instructions its new Palomino core can process. In all likelihood, it will have to be larger than three. If not, AMD could not tout a higher performance figure without first offering a higher megahertz.

AMD has already begun an effort to educate the media with a white paper on how megahertz multiplied by instructions per clock is the way to measure PC performance.

News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.