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AMD introduces budget Athlon 64

Advanced Micro Devices has quietly trotted out a version of its Athlon 64 chip that provides a little less performance than earlier models but only costs about half as much.

Advanced Micro Devices has quietly trotted out a version of its Athlon 64 chip that provides a little less performance than earlier models but only costs about half as much.

The new Athlon 64 3000+ runs at 2GHz, the same as the existing Athlon 64 3200+, but it only comes with a 512KB secondary cache, according to an AMD spokesman. The 3200+ features a 1MB cache. A cache is a pool of memory integrated into the processor for rapid data access. In general, large caches lead to better performance.

AMD, however, prices the Athlon 64 3000+ at $218 in quantities of 1,000 while the 3200+ sells for $418. At AMD, the new chip is known as the "A-Rod," a reference to baseball player Alex Rodriguez. The chip was released earlier this week.

Despite the lower price, the chip likely costs about the same to manufacture as the version with the larger cache because it is about the same size, analysts said. AMD declined to comment on the manufacturing cost. Company executives have said that a version of the Athlon 64 with a smaller die, the piece of silicon itself, won't appear until the 90-nanometer manufacturing process kicks off in the second half of next year.

"They have disabled half of the cache," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. Still, the new chip could help the company improve its output. Some chips in the testing process get thrown out because the full 1MB cache doesn't work. However, many of these chips can be resold as 512KB chips and will not show any flaws.

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Although it was delayed for around two years, the Athlon 64 has managed to gain a following in the market. Anecdotal reports from smaller PC companies that cater to gamers and hobbyists, such as Falcon Northwest, indicate that computers containing the Athlon 64 3200+ chip, which debuted in September, are selling well.

Hewlett-Packard, meanwhile, has started to sell a PC under its Compaq Presario brand that incorporates the chip. Budget PC specialist eMachines came out with a PC that uses the 3200+ Athlon 64 earlier this month.

The performance rating AMD gives its chips, however, has begun to overlap, so consumers need to pay close attention to figure out which chips meet their needs. AMD also sells an Athlon XP 3000+. While it shares the same performance rating number as the new Athlon 64 3000+, there are substantial differences.

The Athlon XP 3000+ is based around the older "Barton" processor core. It cannot run 64-bit software, according to AMD. A small amount of 64-bit software exists now, but it is expected to start to trickle into the market next year. The Athlon XP 3000+ also does not feature an integrated memory controller or HyperTransport, two features of the Athlon 64 family that boost performance by around 10 percent to 15 percent if all other factors remain equal, according to AMD engineers.

As a result, the new Athlon 64 3000+ will provide better performance than the Athlon XP 3000 +, said an AMD spokesman, even though the numbers are the same. Interestingly, the Athlon XP 3000+ runs at 2.1GHz.

AMD and Intel are once again locked in a battle for performance supremacy. Intel has come out with an Extreme Edition of the Pentium 4 to counter the Athlon 64 and plans to introduce a spiffed-up version of the Pentium 4, code-named Prescott, in February. The chip will likely run at 3.4GHz or higher at its debut, according to sources.