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Athlon: The beginning of the end

Advanced Micro Devices will release the Athlon XP 3200+ for desktops, the last scheduled member of a chip family that helped turn the company's fortunes around.

Advanced Micro Devices on Tuesday will release the Athlon XP 3200+ for desktops, the last scheduled member of a chip family that helped turn the company's fortunes around.
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The 3200+ features a 400MHz bus, faster than the 333MHz and 266MHz buses found in earlier Athlon-based computers, and runs at a slightly faster clock speed than other high-end Athlon chips, said John Crank, senior branding associate for AMD.

Graphics chip maker Nvidia, among others, is adjusting its chipsets to complement the faster bus found on the processor.

Overall, the chip will run neck and neck in terms with Intel's fastest products, Crank said. It holds about a 15 percent performance advantage over Intel's 3GHz Pentium 4 processor when the Pentium 4 is connected to a 533MHz bus, according to AMD benchmarks. Intel, though, recently came out with a new chipset that runs at 800MHz and plans on coming out with another 800MHz chipset and a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 soon, according to sources close to the company.

The 3200+ performance enhancements likely will represent a final high-water mark for the original family of Athlon chips on desktops. Although another chip based on the Athlon design may emerge for notebooks, the company has no other desktop Athlons on its current product calendar, Crank said, though it may decide to add chips to the lineup to satisfy customer interest.

"It may be the last Athlon that we make," he said. "We have no plans to jump to 90-nanometer manufacturing with Athlon XP." The shift to 90-nanometer manufacturing is slated to begin at AMD next year.

Instead, the company will concentrate on the Athlon 64, a desktop chip based on a new design that is scheduled to debut in September. Opteron, the server equivalent of the Athlon 64, came out in April. When the new chip comes out, the Athlon will become AMD's budget chip line until it gets phased out.

"The Athlon XP will be sold through 2004 and maybe a bit in 2005," Crank said.

The performance ceiling imposed on the Athlon XP, in part, comes down to necessary decisions on resources. AMD has one plant for manufacturing microprocessors, Crank said. Rival Intel, which can fade out products more gradually, has eight.

Athlon's legacy
The Athlon first came out in 1999, during one of the darker periods in the history of the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company. AMD was regularly losing millions of dollars every quarter and seeing its market share in microprocessors steadily decline. Atiq Raza, then AMD's chief operating officer and one of its most respected executives, abruptly left the company.

The chip, which was paired with a bus originally developed by Digital Equipment, won immediate strong reviews from benchmark testers and analysts. At times, the chip outperformed Intel's best processors and often was a better bargain. AMD beat Intel, by a day, to the 1GHz mark, but was able to get 1GHz chips to customers, while Intel's were scarce.

"Without Athlon, AMD would be out of the business," said Kevin Krewell, senior editor of the Microprocessor Report. "The K6 kept AMD in the game but never put AMD ahead...It was a huge step forward for the company."

Just as important, AMD managed to manufacture the chip in volume, a chronic problem in the past; instead, for the next two years, the company was able to crank out the chip in volume and hit most of its promises on release dates on the Athlon. Over the years, AMD has tweaked the overall architecture by increasing the cache and bus size.

Except for Dell Computer, every major manufacturer adopted the chip for at least one consumer PC or notebook.

After struggling in 1999 and 2000 with manufacturing problems and controversy over its strategy for promoting Rambus memory, Intel righted itself in 2001. Both Gateway and IBM dropped their Athlon PCs. In 2002, AMD began to post massive losses again and its market share slid to about where it stood when the Athlon first came out.

Still, the chip clearly changed the company's reputation and position in the marketplace, Krewell said.

The 3200+ will sell for $464 in 1,000-unit quantities, although AMD chips often sell for far less than their official price because of super-volume discounts.