AMD hints at partnership with Digital

The chipmaker hints at an emerging partnership with Digital Equipment and reveals plans for enhanced versions of its K6 processor.

Brooke Crothers
Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
4 min read
Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) unveiled new K6 chips today and also hinted that it will cooperate with Digital Equipment (DEC) in technologies used in AMD's future K7 chip.

AMD revealed plans for enhanced versions of its currently-shipping K6, dubbed the AMD-K6-3D and the AMD-K6+3D. The chips improve the 3D graphics capability of the K6, how the processor talks to the rest of the computer system, and the high-speed cache memory.

Separately, CEO Jerry Sanders showed in a slide presented as part of his keynote speech at the Microprocessor Forum conference that the K7 processor will use a cartridge design similar to Intel's Pentium II processor and run at clock speeds in excess of 500 MHz.

But probably of even more significance, AMD will tap into Digital Equipment's Alpha processor architecture to enhance the K7's design. Specifically, AMD will use Alpha's "EV6 bus protocol" in its K7 processor, AMD said. Alpha is Digital's high-speed, 64-bit chip.

Greg Favor, a senior fellow at AMD, said that conceivably this might mean that the K7 and Alpha processors would achieve a certain level of compatibility, essentially allowing both chips to be used interchangeably on computer circuit boards, referred to as "motherboards."

Analysts agree. "They [the K7 and Alpha processors] could use the same chip set," said Michael Slater, editorial director of the Microprocessor Report, referring to the accompanying chips that allow the processor to talk with other components in the computer.

This would mean that the Digital Alpha chip and the AMD K7 processor, and possibly AMD's next-generation K8, could together present more of a challenge to Intel's domination of the market.

Digital and AMD have enjoyed a good relationship. Digital was one of the first PC makers to adopt AMD's K6, and Digital has manufactured chips for AMD.

"Hey, there's no doubt that the two companies have a good relationship," said AMD's Favor.

Digital has sued Intel over alleged infringement of processor patent technology, while AMD and Intel are ferocious competitors in the processor market.

Meanwhile, the K6-3D chip is due in the first half of 1998 and the K6+3D is slated for shipment in the second half of 1998.

The K6's new 3D technology adds 24 new instructions for 3D graphics and other techniques for enhancing the K6's ability to handle graphics.

AMD will also add a "Level 2" cache to the chips. Typically, the level-2 cache is separate from the processor. By integrating this very-high-speed memory with the processor, performance can be boosted dramatically. The chip will have a whopping 21.3 million transistors.

Currently, Intel integrates a Level 2 cache into its Pentium Pro, in a separate "cavity" next to the main processor, and as a separate chip inside the Pentium II processor cartridge.

AMD will also enhance the K6 by increasing the speed at which it talks to the rest of the computer, via the "system bus." At the moment, this bus operates at 66 MHz; the improved K6 bus will process at 100 MHz. The system bus is the conduit for data which flows from the processor to the rest of the computer.

AMD is referring to this technology as Super7.

Further, the raw "clock" speed of the K6 is expected to go up to 350 MHz and beyond. AMD is currently sampling a 266-MHz version of the K6 processor.

In other developments, AMD is also expected to begin commercial shipments later this year of its first true mobile version of the K6, according to industry sources familiar with the development. The chip will be based on 0.25 micron technology, the most advanced production process now being used for Intel-based processors. This shrinks the size of the chip, allowing it to run faster using less power. Intel is making its mobile Pentium processors on a similar process.

AMD will price its mobile chips about 25 percent below Intel prices, according to a source familiar with the chip's rollout. "Customers will be on board for the launch commensurate with the release," said the source. AMD is currently shipping samples of the chip to customers.

However, AMD will have to demonstrate that it can produce chips in large numbers, that it will not be hampered by low manufacturing yields. Low yields caused K6 production to fall below expectations, resulting in an overall quarterly loss of $31.7 million, or 22 cents a share.

"It's a great chip, but if you can't produce them, what's the use of all these announcements. The yield problem continues to haunt them," said Carl Johnson, president of Infrastructure, a consulting firm, in an earlier interview. On the other hand, "Intel is going to be able to produce all they can sell."