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AMD, Cyrix to tell of chip advances

Plans and strategies from Intel's two leading rivals will be disclosed at the Microprocessor Forum on October 14 and 15.

Toward the end of the year, both Cyrix (CYRX) and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) will start to unveil new chip technologies that could well raise competitive pressures on chip giant Intel.

Plans and strategies for improved processors from the industry leader's two principal rivals will be disclosed October 14 and 15 at the Microprocessor Forum, a yearly gathering of the microprocessor industry elite.

AMD will reveal plans for an enhanced version of its K6, under the code name "K6 Plus," while Cyrix is expected to demonstrate how 3D graphics can be incorporated into future versions of its MediaGX chip.

AMD is expected to improve how the processor talks to the rest of the computer system and boost its number-crunching capabilities for scientific and multimedia applications. Enhancements may also include improvements to the cache, high-speed memory which boosts system performance. Some analysts expect AMD or Cyrix to move the "Level 2" cache--the largest chunk of cache memory in a PC--on to the processor itself. This type of cache is typically separate from the processor.

AMD is also expected to come out with its first true mobile version of the K6 later this year, according to industry sources familiar with the development. The chip will be based on ".25 micron" technology, the most advanced production process now being used for Intel-based processors. This shrinks the size of the chip, allowing it to run faster using less power. Intel is making its mobile Pentium processors on a similar process.

AMD will price its mobile chips about 25 percent below Intel prices, according to a source familiar with the chip's roll-out. "Customers will be on board for the launch commensurate with the release," said the source. AMD is currently shipping samples of the chip to customers.

Cyrix's chip enhancements, 3D and otherwise, are targeted at the lower end of the market, where Intel has been vulnerable. One likely segment: smaller, mobile devices.

"Cyrix is going to come out with lower-powered stuff for wireless phones, PDAs, mobile," said Rich Belgard, a consultant with Micro Design Resources. "Intel has been ignoring the low-power market for a while."

Cyrix will also continue to attack the low end of the PC market exploiting its price advantage over Intel. Micro Electronics, for instance, this week released a full-featured computer, without monitor, incorporating a current version of the 166-MHz MediaGX chip for $499--about half the price of the cheapest Intel-based PCs.

Better performance is also coming from Cyrix for PCs. Cyrix has said it will release 200- and 233-MHz versions of the current version of the MediaGX, an inexpensive, highly integrated microprocessor that incorporates graphics and audio on a single piece of silicon. Going forward, Cyrix is expected to include modem functionality as part of this package. MMX capability will also be added to the chip, the company has said. The 3D capability is expected to come still later.

Compaq is currently using the Cyrix MediaGX in low-cost PCs.

AMD, for its part, will enhance the K6 by increasing the speed at which it talks to the rest of the computer, via the "system bus." At the moment, this bus operates at 66 MHz; the improved K6 bus will process at 100 MHz. The system bus is the conduit for data which flows from the processor to the rest of the computer.

AMD is also expected to make enhancements such as improving "floating point" processing (the decimal calculations required by scientific and engineering applications) and multimedia-based MMX processing of the K6.

This is in addition to improving the raw "clock" speed of the K6, which is expected to go up to 300 MHz and beyond. AMD is currently sampling a 266-MHz version of the K6 processor, an AMD spokesperson said.

Despite these development efforts, both companies will have to build more credibility in the marketplace for sales and market share to improve, said Carl Johnson, president of Infrastructure, a consulting firm.

AMD in particular will have to demonstrate that it can produce chips in large numbers, that it will not be hampered by low manufacturing yields. Earlier this month, the company said that low yields caused K6 production to fall below expectations, which will result in an overall quarterly loss.

"It's a great chip, but if you can't produce them, what's the use of all these announcements. The yield problem continues to haunt them," he said. On the other hand, "Intel is going to be able to produce all they can sell."