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AMD boosts Athlon 64 performance

The chipmaker releases four desktop processors that offer new features and better performance, the company says.

Advanced Micro Devices has bolstered the performance of its Athlon 64 PC processor.

The chipmaker on Tuesday released four Athlon 64 chips including an Athlon 64 3800+ and an updated Athlon 64 FX-53. Both the 3800+ and the FX-53 are fitted with an improved memory controller and are available in a 939-pin package. A chip's package connects the processor to a PC's motherboard or main circuit board.

AMD also introduced an Athlon 64 3500+ that incorporates the memory controller and package but runs at a slower clock speed and costs less.

As expected, the new 128-bit dual-channel memory controller increases the performance of the Athlon 64 line, boosting the model numbers from 3400+ to 3800+, for instance. Because the Athlon 64 and Athlon 64 FX chips both come in 939-pin packages, they can use the same motherboards, which makes it easier for PC makers to create desktop lines that offer both chips, AMD said.

One of the first PC makers to use the new Athlon 64s will be Hewlett-Packard, which will offer customers a choice between the 3500+, the 3800+ and the FX-53 in its Compaq X game machine, according to AMD. The Compaq X will go on sale in July, HP has said.

Although capable of processing 64-bit software, Athlon 64 computers aren't used that way at the moment. Microsoft won't release its 64-bit version of Windows for this chip until the end of the year, which means that consumers may not get it until 2005. Linux versions are available, but few 64-bit applications exist for the platform.

Bringing out the 64-bit capabilities requires 4GB or more of memory, or close to four times the amount found on even high-end computers. Still, buying the chip "future proofs" consumers, the company has said.

"The 939-pin platform sets us up for the future in that we've got a strong performance platform that our customers can use...in the performance part of the market," said John Morris, AMD's manager of desktop product marketing. "There's also a cost advantage over the old (754 pin) platform. We're trying to get to a more singular infrastructure, and we're going to do it through the 939-pin platform."

Previously, Athlon 64s came in a 754-pin package, and Athlon 64 FX chips came in a 940-pin package, requiring PC makers to use two different motherboards, even if they put the two chips into the same PC line. AMD will continue to offer the packages, particularly those with 754 pins, which will move to less-expensive PCs over time, Morris said.

AMD also launched a fourth Athlon 64, model 3700+, which will come in the 754-pin package, bumping up the performance of the existing Athlon 64 desktop lines.

Neck and neck with Intel?
The Athlon 64 updates should help AMD in its rivalry with Intel. Several tests published by computer enthusiast sites such as HardOCP showed that the new Athlon 64 3800+ and Athlon 64 FX-53 bested Intel's latest Pentium 4s on some benchmarks but fell behind on a few others.

Although the updates should hold AMD over until it moves to a 90-nanometer chip-manufacturing process next quarter, Intel isn't standing still. The company is expected to launch a faster 3.6GHz Pentium 4 processor, along with its new Grantsdale chipset, later this month. Meanwhile, Intel's Prescott Pentium 4--its top desktop chip--appears to be more readily available. Dell, which said it stopped offering Prescott chips in March due to a limited supply, began offering them again late last month.

Although AMD continues to increase the performance of its chips, it's not necessarily relying on clock speed to get there. Technical documentation available on AMD's Web site shows that besides the package and memory controller updates, it changed little else in the new processors. The Athlon 64 3800+, for instance, runs at the same clock speed and includes the same amount of Level 2 cache as does AMD's latest Athlon 64 3400+, but it garners a higher model number.

AMD's updated Athlon 64s will be priced above their predecessors. The Athlon 64 3500+ will cost $500, while the 3700+ and 3800+ will cost $710 and $720, respectively. AMD lists the new Athlon 64 FX-53 at $799. However, street prices on individual chips are likely to vary, as AMD's list prices are for chips purchased in 1,000-unit lots.