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AMD renovates Athlon 64

The chipmaker is boosting shipments of a version of its desktop Athlon 64 based on a processor core dubbed Newcastle that features half the cache but the same overall performance.

Advanced Micro Devices has a few more chips up its sleeve.

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based chipmaker has been quietly working to expand the distribution of its Athlon 64 processor in desktops and notebooks. The chipmaker is doing so by increasing shipments of a new version of its desktop Athlon 64 based on a processor core dubbed Newcastle and by launching a new mobile Athlon XP chip based on the circuitry of the Athlon 64. AMD also plans to soon release another Athlon 64 FX chip for desktop PC enthusiasts.

The Newcastle-based chips, which have recently become available in model numbers 2800+ and 3000+ and will soon include 3200+, may be the most notable change afoot. The new processors use half the Level 2 cache of AMD's original Athlon 64 desktop chip. Instead of coming with 1MB of Level 2 cache, the newer chips incorporate 512KB.

Generally, a larger cache or pool of memory located close to the processor core, will deliver greater performance when all other features are the same. But AMD has several ways, including manipulating cache size and clock speed, to get the amount of performance it wants out of its Athlon 64s. And analysts say that smaller cache size could help boost AMD's manufacturing output by allowing the company to switch off a section of the cache in some chips if they include flaws.

Most PC customers aren't likely to notice the changes in cache and speed in a Newcastle chip versus the original Athlon 64 as the performance of each chip remains the same. While they each have 512KB of cache, the Newcastle Athlon 64 2800+ chip runs at 1.8GHz, the Newcastle 3000+ runs at 2GHz and the Newcastle 3200+'s clock speed is 2.2GHz. In contrast, AMD's original Athlon 64 3200+ model with 1MB of cache runs at 2GHz, while its 3400+, also with 1MB of cache, runs at 2.2GHz.

The move to a smaller cache basically shows that AMD is on track with the Athlon 64, because the company had planned to move to a smaller cache as clock speeds increased, one executive at the company said.

Although none appear to have done so yet, PC makers in the United States will likely adopt Newcastle-based chips eventually. Newcastle-based chips such as the 3000+ are priced somewhat lower than the original Athlon 64, potentially allowing the PC makers to create less expensive Athlon 64 desktops and thus increase the potential market for the chip. Meanwhile, AMD is expected to use Newcastle as the basis for higher Athlon 64 model numbers in the future.

"You'll see us continue to ramp in volumes and also increase the model numbers. I believe in my heart of hearts that we'll be truly competitive with Intel in 2004, meaning that Prescott processors are not going to pose a significant threat to Athlon 64," John Crank, AMD's Athlon 64 product manager, said in a recent interview.

In January, Intel unveiled the Prescott chip, its latest desktop Pentium 4. Intel has said the chip will hit 4GHz this year.

Preparing the FX
At AMD, higher clock speeds will arrive first for Athlon 64, allowing the company to launch the Athlon 64 FX-53 as soon as the end of March. The chip, designed for game playing and for other PC enthusiasts' pursuits, will run at 2.4GHz, versus its 2.2GHz predecessor, the FX-51. Athlon 64 FX chips will retain 1MB of cache.

AMD is also preparing a new kind of package used to install a chip in a PC. The new package has 939 pins--compared with 754 pins in its current package--and a 128-bit, dual-channel memory controller.

Higher clock speed, combined with the package and the memory controller--which increases memory bandwidth by adding a second channel--will grant Athlon 64 chips enough performance to jump to model numbers of 3800+ and above over time, sources familiar with AMD's plans suggested.

Those updates should hold AMD over until it moves to 90-nanometer manufacturing process. The transition, expected later this year, will allow AMD to produce smaller, faster processors--a measure that will enable the company to boost overall output, while turning out desktop chips with higher model numbers and notebook chips that use less power.

Chips on the move
Meanwhile, changes to AMD's mobile Athlon XP processor reflect that another major transition is in the works.

The chipmaker has quietly minted an Athlon XP-M 3000+, using some of the underpinnings of its mobile Athlon 64. The chip, now being used by Hewlett Packard in its Presario R3000Z notebook, offers a lower-priced alternative to the mobile Athlon 64. The R3000Z was also one of the first HP notebooks to offer the mobile Athlon 64 chip, which also comes in its Pavilion zv5000z.

Like past value chips, such as AMD's Duron, the Athlon XP-M 3000+ runs at a lower clock speed, has less cache and lacks some features found in its more expensive sibling. The 3000+ runs at 1.6GHz, has just 256KB of Level 2 cache and does not include a 64-bit capability.

AMD plans to eventually offer similar Athlon XP chips for desktops in the future. The move will bolster the performance of the Athlon XP line, which is expected to eventually become AMD's chip brand for low-price PCs.

Also, after its transition to 90-nanometer manufacturing, AMD plans to offer low-power mobile Athlon 64 chips to counter Intel's Pentium M in lightweight notebooks.

"I'd expect to see Athlon 64 move into a 35-watt envelope, and our goal is to move (it) down into 25-watt (notebooks)," Crank said. Right now, the mobile chip runs at 65 watts to 82 watts.