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AMD delays Hammer for desktops

Advanced Micro Devices says it has pushed back the release of its highly anticipated Hammer chip for desktops by almost a quarter. It's also delaying the release of another Athlon chip.

Advanced Micro Devices has pushed out the release of its highly anticipated Hammer chip for desktops by almost a quarter, and plans to delay the release of another Athlon chip.

The desktop version of Hammer, which is code-named Clawhammer and will be marketed under the Athlon brand name, will ship to PC manufacturers in the first quarter of 2003 and will hit store shelves toward the end of that quarter or at the beginning of the next, said John Crank, senior branding associate at AMD.

Earlier, AMD planned to ship Clawhammer to manufacturers by the end of the fourth quarter of this year and have it on store shelves in the first quarter of 2003.

Opteron, a version of Hammer for servers, will keep to its scheduled release in the first half of next year.

The delay on Clawhammer, which was originally slated to come out in the first quarter of 2002, should heat up the competitive atmosphere of the microprocessor market in 2003. AMD has stated that Clawhammer will outperform Intel's best chips and pave the way for AMD to get its processors into the corporate environment. The holdup, though, could erode any performance advantages to Clawhammer, especially as Intel has encountered few problems in ratcheting up the speed of its chips in the past year.

"AMD was counting on Clawhammer to put some distance in terms of performance with Intel," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. "It is going to be a closer horse race than it was supposed to be."

Similarly, the company will postpone the commercial release of "Barton," a new version of the Athlon chip with a performance-enhancing 512KB secondary cache, from the second half of this year to the first quarter of next year.

The delays are occurring to accommodate the release of a new version of Athlon with a 333MHz bus, said Crank. Current Athlons come with a 266MHz bus and 256KB of secondary cache. Typically, a faster bus, which is the main data conduit between the processor and memory, means better performance. An Athlon with the faster bus will come out this quarter, he added.

Kevin Krewell, senior editor of the Microprocessor Report industry newsletter, disputed AMD's explanation. "The slip indicates something wasn't ready," he said. "The 333MHz bus is a stopgap because Hammer is delayed."

Although Krewell couldn't specify an exact cause for the delay, he listed several possible reasons. For example, as Hammer is a completely new chip, motherboard and chipset makers may be having trouble finalizing their products; or AMD may have wanted to wait until it could make Hammer in larger volumes. Hammer will also be AMD's first chip containing silicon-on-insulator, a technology from IBM that helps prevent electrical leakage. "They may be having problems with that," Krewell said.

Although it encountered few missteps in manufacturing in 2000 and 2001, AMD has been bogged down a bit by delays this year. The Athlon XP 2400+, originally due in the second quarter, is slated to hit store shelves this month. The company also redesigned the Athlon this summer to reduce energy consumption.

AMD lost two points of market share in the past quarter and posted a loss for the fourth straight quarter.

Rival Intel, meanwhile, is continuing to push the gas pedal on the Pentium 4. A 3GHz version of the chip will debut this quarter, the company said this week.

The Hammer chip differs from current microprocessors in a number of significant ways. The chip, for instance, will be able to run software written for 32-bit chips, found in desktops today, and 64-bit chips, which are found in high-end servers. The chip also connects to other components through HyperTransport, a high-speed data link.

These two breakthroughs should not only improve performance, but also ease many of the design requirements needed to put the chip into servers or workstations, since one chip will fit into a variety of machines.

AMD has not said how fast Hammer will be when it comes out. Last year, though, the company showed a slide at its analyst conference that said it would be marketed with a performance number of 3400. Although analysts have speculated that the chip will run at between 2GHz and 2.5GHz, AMD's performance numbers generally track Intel chips, which suggests a 3400 chip would be roughly equal to a 3.4GHz Pentium 4.