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Key testing results for AMD's Athlon due soon

For the chipmaker, the rubber will start to meet the road on August 9 when benchmark results for the new high-end Athlon processor are made public.

For chipmaker AMD, the rubber will start to meet the road on August 9 when some key testing results for the new high-end Athlon processor are made public.

The results, called benchmarks, are a standardized set of tests that are used to compare performance of different electronic components such as processors.

Early next month, AMD said it will allow publications and analysts to first start discussing publicly the benchmarks surrounding the Athlon--formerly called the K7 processor. The event will likely be closely watched, because nearly every analyst contacted by CNET has said informally that the Athlon, which AMD is banking on mightily, will outperform Intel's high-end Pentium III at the same speed.

By offering a better-performing chip at a lower cost, AMD is hoping to break out of its niche as supplier for the low end of the PC market and into more profitable market segments. This strategy is crucial to the long-term health of the company, analysts say.

Computers based around Athlon will start coming out in mid-August, said Ben Anixter, an AMD spokesman, at the BancBoston Robertson Stephens semiconductor conference in San Francisco this morning.

The new chip will run at 550 MHz and 600 MHz at its debut and move up to 650 MHz later in the third quarter of this year. A 700-MHz version will come out in the fourth quarter, he said. Copper-based Athlon chips, along with two-and four-processor Athlon-based workstations, will then begin to appear in early 2000, Anixter added.

Anixter's presentation strongly indicated that AMD will attack Intel and the Pentium III on a variety of fronts. Flashing a slide of benchmark results, AMD showed the Athlon beating the Pentium III on a wide variety of applications, including commercial programs such as Adobe's PhotoShop and Autodesk's AutoCad.

Some PC makers have already chosen the chip for use in high-end PCs, a process AMD would like to accelerate and broaden.

"At the present, we are relegated to the low end. We must play across the board," he said.

Interestingly, workstations could be the place where Athlon begins to emerge in commercial spaces. "This is where you have the least of the 'IBM problem,'" he said. That is, a focus on brand name over performance. "Performance is in some cases 50 to 100 percent higher" with Athlon.

Getting to greater commercial acceptance, however, won't be easy. While analysts have praised the chip, they also state that AMD has an extremely uneven record when it comes to manufacturing.

And with Athlon, AMD is biting off the biggest project in its history.

Athlon chips were only released to motherboard manufacturers late last month. In the fourth quarter of this year, AMD will begin to shift to the more advanced "0.18-micron" manufacturing process, said Anixter. Then, immediately following the shift to 0.18-microns, the company will start making its chips with copper, rather than aluminum, wires.

Typically, events such as new chip introductions, shifting manufacturing processes, and changing metals are taxing for even the most stable chipmaker.

An unforeseen problem with any one of these tasks could delay large volumes of Athlon processors. That sort of problem occurred during the production of the earlier-generation K6 and K6-2 chips and led to huge financial losses for the company. AMD is also opening a new manufacturing plant in Dresden, Germany, which is, again, no easy feat.