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Windows, games brace for powerful chip

The Athlon 64 chip from Advanced Micro Devices is coming out toward the end of September, and software that takes full advantage of the chip won?t be that far behind.

The Athlon 64 chip from Advanced Micro Devices is coming out toward the end of September, and software that takes full advantage of the chip won't be that far behind.

Microsoft will release a version of Windows optimized for the chip in the fourth quarter of this year or the first quarter of 2004, Marty Seyer, vice president and general manager of AMD?s microprocessor business unit, said in an interview this week.

The beta version of the operating system will become available in "late Q3," he added. That's slightly later than the midyear release of the beta Microsoft had promised earlier, but the estimated release schedule of the final version conforms to the expectations of most analysts.

Microsoft declined to give a timetable for the final release of the product, but it reiterated that the beta would come out "toward the middle of the year." The Redmond, Wash.-based software developer has said it will offer desktop and server versions of the 64-bit Windows for the AMD chip.

Game developers will also be coming out with software tweaked for the chip. Epic Games, for example, will come out with a patch for the 32-bit version of "Unreal Tournament 2003" that will allow the game to take full advantage of the processor's 64-bit capabilities.

"It is all 100 percent 64-bit code," said Tim Sweeney, Epic's founder.

The activity in the software market is an early indication that companies expect some segments of the buying public to gravitate toward the chip's unusual architecture in the near future.

The Athlon 64 can run both 32-bit software, the kind found on most desktops today, and 64-bit software, which is found mainly on high-end Unix machines. The big advantage to computing in 64-bit mode is that the computer can handle more than 4GB of memory, the limit on 32-bit computers.

Increasing the amount of memory in a computer increases performance because more data can be kept "close" to the processor, rather than on the hard drive.

Few people need this sort of capability now, AMD executives admit. Only about 20 percent of server applications and around 5 percent of notebook and desktop applications could take tangible advantage of this memory capacity, Seyer said. As a result, a lot of people will use Athlon 64 machines to run 32-bit Windows code.

Nonetheless, AMD is betting that techno lust, especially among computing enthusiasts, will drive demand for computers with the additional 64-bit capabilities. In workstations and PCs, 64-bit hardware and software leads to better graphics and game performance because complex, changing 3D backgrounds and large chunks of video can be kept in memory. Intel's Pentium chips don't work in 64-bit mode.

"64-bit is a big deal for video," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

IBM has said it will come out with a workstation containing a version of Opteron, the server-workstation version of the Athlon 64 chip, next year, closer to the time when Microsoft's version of Windows for the Athlon 64 comes out. Manufacturers specializing in gamer machines are also looking at coming out with full 64-bit systems, Seyer said. Some 64-bit versions of the Linux operating system are already out.

"There will be an immediate adoption of 64-bits in the high-end desktop and notebook users and in the enthusiast crowd," Seyer said. "We are 12 to 15 months away from broad application on the notebook."

Widespread acceptance will depend on a number of factors. Most important, the price of memory will have to decline. Most desktops and notebooks on the market today come with 512MB or less of memory. Only a few come with 1GB.

The price of 4GB of memory is $800 or more, according to Converge and Price Watch, which track, respectively, wholesale and retail prices for chips. PC makers typically will allow memory to account for around 8 percent of their total component costs. A 4GB machine, therefore, would cost thousands.

Developers will also have to tweak their products. Epic's first game designed specifically for 64-bit desktop computing won't come out for nearly two years, Sweeney said. It's a brand new game, he added, not another version of "Unreal Tournament," that will feature photorealistic textures.

"It will be a year and a half before you see lots of consumer products," he added.