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AMD plans Athlon boost

The chipmaker is expected to introduce two new models for desktop PCs, and is evaluating whether to increase the speed of the chip's front side bus.

Advanced Micro Devices will rev up the performance of its Athlon XP processor with new models, due later this month.

The chipmaker will introduce, at a minimum, an Athlon XP 2400+ and an Athlon XP 2600+ for desktop PCs toward the end of the month, sources familiar with AMD's plans said. AMD is also evaluating whether to increase the speed of the chip's front-side bus--the pathway used to shuttle data between the processor and PC memory. Doing so would boost the performance of future Athlon-based PCs.

The newest Athlon XPs will help AMD increase its competitiveness archrival Intel's Pentium 4. The Pentium 4 currently tops out at 2.53GHz, while AMD's highest performance Athlon XP is a 2200+ model, which runs at 1.8GHz.

To get there, AMD moved up the launch of the 2600+ chip, which was not expected until the fourth quarter, to this month. The move helps AMD combat Intel's imminent 2.8GHz Pentium 4 launch, which is set for Aug. 26, according to sources. Intel advanced the chip release to this month from the fourth quarter to help stimulate demand, analysts said.

Both companies are expected to cut chip prices as the new chips become available.

AMD upping the ante harkens back to the two chipmakers' race to 1GHz in early 2000, analysts said. AMD won that horse race, but right now the Pentium 4 gives Intel the upper hand, analysts said.

"There's a twofold purpose behind these introductions. It's designed to juice the market and compete with the other guy," said Dean McCarron, analyst with Mercury Research. "It's no secret that Intel doesn't care much for AMD. That move increased Intel's strength against AMD at a time when AMD was more vulnerable than usual...due to its loss of market share and the (PC market) inventory problems of the second quarter."

AMD share of the PC processor market dropped 2.6 percent to 15.6 percent during the second quarter, while Hewlett-Packard, its main customer, struggled with excess inventory of consumer PCs.

AMD will battle back, however. Its new schedule calls for an Athlon XP 2800+ chip later in the year, sources said.

Under the company's model numbering system--designed to reflect the actual performance of the chip rather than its clock speed--the new 2400+ and 2600+ chips will perform as well as or better than Pentium 4 chips running at 2.4GHz and 2.6GHz. The 2400+ and 2600+ could have clock speeds in the range of 2.06GHz and 2.2GHz, based on AMD's previous Athlon XP models. Its Athlon XP 2200+ chip, for example, runs at 1.8GHz.

Meanwhile, AMD has other things in the works. The chipmaker is considering boosting the speed of Athlon XP's 266MHz front-side bus to faster 333MHz. The move would give the chip a performance boost by better matching the chip's bus frequency with its higher clock speed. The chip would also be able to take better advantage of higher bandwidth DDR333 (333MHz Double Data Rate SDRAM) memory.

"Customers have said they're interested (in the faster bus), and we're evaluating it. We're always looking to drive performance improvement," said Catharine Abbinanti, an AMD representative.

The company could benefit from a higher bus frequency, analysts say.

"Moving to 333MHz alone will probably buy (AMD) one or two clicks in model numbers," McCarron said.

AMD could pair the faster bus with a new version of the Athlon XP chip, code-named Barton, which is expected later in the year. The combination would allow AMD to produce new chips that are at least a couple of model numbers higher than the current ones, analysts said. (Barton has a larger, 512KB level 2 cache, allowing the chip to store more data on board and therefore increasing its performance.)

Some, however, might consider AMD's moves to make Athlon XP more competitive as the opening act. While it continues to improve the chip, AMD is finishing work on an all-new desktop processor, code-named "Clawhammer."

This new Athlon chip, expected to carry a model number of 3000+ or higher, is on track to begin shipping to PC makers later this year for wide scale introduction to the public early next year.

AMD declined to comment on its plans for higher Athlon XP model numbers.