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AMD chips away

The chipmaker plans a Pentium II rival that can fit into older, less expensive PC designs.

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) plans to push the design envelope on its K6 microprocessor with new versions showcasing higher speeds and more features, in an effort to keep up with the performance and growing popularity Intel's (INTC) Pentium II.

AMD's strategy revolves around the fact that its K6 chips plug into the current generation of Pentium PC designs, while Intel's Pentium II uses a revamped, proprietary design. This, Intel hopes, will give it a leg up in performance--and protect it from other processor vendors exploiting its new design--as it attempts to move the PC industry over to the Pentium II.

But the Intel Pentium II design is currently more costly. AMD claims that cheaper, present-day Pentium-based PC architectures offer plenty of head room for performance over the next two years and that the Pentium II may be overkill for many users.

AMD is planning not only to boost the speed of its K6--to 266 MHz, then to 300 MHz--but, more important, to increase the speed at which the processor talks to other components in a PC, such as memory. AMD plans to increase this speed from 66 MHz to 100 MHz. Intel has similar plans, but those plans may be more closely linked to the Pentium II than to the current Pentium.

In addition, AMD will incorporate Intel's Accelerated Graphics Port--or AGP, a next-generation 3D technology--into a subsequent release of peripheral chips that work with the K6, giving a lift to graphics performance.

If successful, the enhancements will raise the overall system performance of the K6 well over the Pentium MMX and more in line with the Pentium II.

The Sunnyvale, California-based semiconductor manufacturer is also examining ways to fit a second "bus," or data path, onto the K6, said industry sources. This would mimic one of the major enhancements to the Pentium II.

As in the Pentium II, an additional bus allows large amounts of data to flow more freely. To do this, the second bus attaches to special high-speed memory called "cache" and thereby alleviates data congestion on the main bus. Sources close to AMD, however, said that this enhancement is unlikely and that the company would stick to less radical changes.

But AMD's battle plans breath life into the Pentium architecture as well as illuminate the tectonic ripples unleashed by the Pentium II.

Pentium chips, like the K6, plug into computers through a design called Socket 7, a multipin plug and socket design resembling a pin cushion.

By contrast, Pentium II chips use a design called Slot 1, in which a smooth, razorlike edge replaces the pins. The problem Slot 1 presents for AMD, say analysts, is that the connector change requires many other changes in PC design, making it impossible for AMD's chips to be used in Pentium II PC designs.

Enhancing the K6 design makes sense, at least for now, because it gives room for AMD to enhance its product line without causing many difficulties for computer manufacturers, said Rich Belgard, a computer consultant with Microprocessor Report. PC manufacturers can come out with relatively high-performance systems using older, cheaper PC designs.

But there is a limit to what a fast chip can do in an aging design. "Over time, Socket 7 becomes more of a hindrance," said Linley Gwennap, editor in chief of Microprocessor Report. "At some point, PC makers have got to say, 'The only reason I'm doing this is for AMD and Cyrix.'"

In any event, the Socket 7 strategy should carry AMD through 1998. A K7 chip, based on an entirely new design, will appear in 1999. But AMD would not comment on any aspect of the K7 design.