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AMD's Thunderbird to debut Monday

The release of a high-performance version of Advanced Micro Device's Athlon processor is expected to spark a new round of competitive battles with Intel.

A high-performance version of Advanced Micro Device's Athlon processor dubbed Thunderbird will make its debut Monday, according to sources close to the company.

The Thunderbird is essentially an enhanced version of the Athlon, a line of processors that has been credited with turning the company's fortunes around. Its release is expected to spark a new round of competitive battles with Intel.

To be incorporated into high-end consumer systems and business desktops, Thunderbird will run at speeds ranging from 750 MHz to 1 GHz and higher, according to sources.

AMD also will formally open its fabrication facility in Dresden, Germany, on Monday.

Although similar to current Athlons in several respects, the Thunderbird chips will incorporate a number of firsts for the chip manufacturer.

The Thunderbird Athlons, for instance, will contain 256 KB of secondary cache integrated into the processor. The cache improves performance because it holds data that the processor needs to access quickly. Current Athlons come with 512 KB of secondary cache located near the processor but on separate chips. Although larger, the cache on current Athlons is slower.

The new architecture also will cut manufacturing costs. Free of the larger cache, Thunderbirds can be put into smaller, less expensive packages.

The new processor marks AMD's first foray into copper. Many of the new Thunderbirds will be made with copper, rather than aluminum, circuitry. Because copper conducts electricity better than aluminum, the chips run cooler. This gives AMD the opportunity to make faster versions in the future.

Copper Thunderbirds will come out of AMD's Dresden plant; aluminum Thunderbirds will be produced at its Austin, Texas, facility.

In addition, AMD will begin to market Thunderbirds for the business and corporate market. Computers using AMD's chips have mostly been confined to the consumer market. The consumer PC market continues to grow, but it represents less than 40 percent of the overall market. A push into the commercial sector therefore would open new revenue streams for AMD.

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Chip competition
AMD representatives declined to comment on the chips, but said that the company has committed to releasing the Thunderbird in June. Thunderbird also is slated to be released before Duron, a low-cost version of the Athlon. Duron is slated for release on June 12.

The opening of the Dresden facility couldn't come at a better time for AMD, noted Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. The industry is currently in the midst of a severe processor shortage. A scarcity of Intel processors in the first quarter, for instance, prompted Gateway to adopt Athlon for some of its computers.

Although Intel's plight has been more visible, AMD has been selling out a number of its processors.

With Dresden, AMD will double its manufacturing capacity, giving the company an opportunity to nab market share. "Everybody has been struggling about the shortage of microprocessors," Brookwood said.