Athlon-based notebooks hit a snag

Notebooks with Palomino, a version of AMD's Athlon processor, could arrive next month, but top-tier PC makers will take a lot longer to get out the gate.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
4 min read
Athlon-based notebooks from top-tier PC makers will arrive fashionably late this year.

Notebooks that run on Palomino--a version of Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon processor that consumes less power than standard Athlon chips--could come out as soon as next month, according to sources close to the chipmaker.

But models from top-tier PC makers will likely show up a lot later. Industry sources indicate that major PC makers have recently pushed back until June or July plans to introduce notebooks based on the processors. Compaq Computer and Hewlett-Packard are among the major manufacturers expected to adopt the chip.

AMD is expected to begin to more aggressively market the chip midyear.

The belated release comes not because of flaws with Palomino but because of a lack of notebook-specific chipsets, motherboards and other components. The same issue already prompted AMD to push back the release of Palomino from last year's fourth quarter to the first quarter of 2001. Morgan, a power-saving version of AMD's budget Duron processor, was also delayed last year from the fourth quarter to the second quarter of 2001.

"The fundamental technology is sound," one computer executive said of Palomino, speaking on the condition of anonymity. However, the delay comes because of problems in establishing an infrastructure, or developing supplies of chipsets and motherboards.

While the good news for the company appears to be that Athlon is not hitting technical snags, the delay hinders AMD's efforts to increase its presence in the notebook market. Right now, AMD's main chips for the notebook segment come from the K6-2 family, which top out at 550MHz. Intel's slowest mobile chips start at 500MHz. AMD has released a version of Duron for mobile computers, but has not actively marketed it in the United States.

"They (AMD) haven't been gaining like they have in the desktop space," said Alan Promisel, an analyst at IDC. "Hopefully for AMD, these new products can change that."

AMD for its part is setting up for a staggered release. Palomino chips are leaving the factory now. PC makers are free to incorporate these into notebooks.

"We plan to have production shipments this quarter in volume," AMD spokesman Ward Tisdale said.

Nonetheless, the official announcement of the chip won't come until at least one top-tier PC maker is ready to announce a product. At that point, AMD will make a joint announcement with that company and reveal all the details on the new chip, which is expected to debut at about 900MHz.

Analysts say that chipsets are slowing the big names down. Chipsets, which perform the job of tying the chip in with the rest of the system, including graphics, memory and disk drives, are expected from Via Technologies and Acer.

Designer machine dreams
Both Via and Acer have chipsets that would work with Palomino. However, the chipsets are designed for desktop computers, and top-tier PC makers are loath to use chipsets that aren't specifically designed for notebooks, according to Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"It looks like the tier one (manufacturers) are choosing to wait for a more targeted mobile solution," McCarron said.

Top-tier PC makers, he added, "can take a perfectly available chipset and delay it for months as they run it through the ringer."

Via is expected to ship a version of its Twister chipset-now available for Intel mobile Pentium III chips--for the mobile Athlon in the second quarter, sources close to Via said. That chipset would offer an integrated graphics core from S3 Graphics and will likely be announced in April and shipped by the end of the second quarter.

Acer's CyberMagik 1646 chipset, announced in mid-January, is scheduled to ship in the second quarter, a company spokeswoman said.

It is likely that samples of both chipsets have been sent to PC makers or will be sent shortly. However, as McCarron points out, it will take some time to get a notebook into the market.

Late last year, Martin Booth, AMD's mobile marketing manager, acknowledged that the same infrastructure issues caused the earlier delay.

"It takes a little bit of time to get the infrastructure in place," he said. "With mobile engineering, it's a little bit harder than with desktops."

One issue that AMD apparently has managed to control with Palomino and Duron is heat. Athlon is a fairly power-hungry chip. Reducing the energy consumption has been one of the major engineering tasks. To that end, AMD has tweaked circuitry on both chips. So far, neither sources at AMD nor within the PC industry have indicated that AMD has not succeeded in this project.

So why didn't AMD just develop its own mobile chipset and avoid the hassle?

Analysts say it would have been a waste of precious resources. As with AMD's Duron situation, in which the chip's introduction was also slowed by the lack of low-cost chipsets, relying on third parties to provide support is a trade hazard for AMD.

Still, AMD is "better off focusing on processors and whatever core logic it needs to do to sell the desktop stuff," McCarron said.