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AMD plans to keep annoying Intel

The chip giant's scrappy crosstown rival plans to take the feud into the foreseeable future with its new Athlon 2800+, its upcoming "Hammer" chips and a double-gate transistor effort.

Advanced Micro Devices has big plans for the future: to be the thorn firmly stuck in Intel's side.

If the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based chipmaker has its way, it will continue as its crosstown rival's thorny nemesis for years to come. AMD recently started shipping several new Athlon processors, including the Athlon XP 2800+ and Athlon MP 2400+, and is on track to deliver its next-generation chips, the Opteron and Athlon 64--collectively known by the code name Hammer--early next year.

It's also working on new transistors and new chipmaking techniques that will let it continue to boost chip performance through 2005 and beyond, company representatives said Monday.

AMD researchers will serve up details on those efforts at this week's International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco, offering a look at the company's progress toward creating a so-called double gate transistor design, and its work in using silicon alternatives to boost chip performance.

The researchers will present a paper on AMD's version of the double gate, which it announced last September. Transistors are the tiny devices that make up a chip's circuitry, channeling electrical signals through their gates. Using two gates instead of one can double the amount of electricity moving through the transistor, a technique similar to adding extra lanes to a highway to increase traffic flow.

Two additional papers will discuss AMD's ideas on building transistors that use metal, rather than silicon gates. Using nickel for the gate improves electrical current flow through the transistor, AMD said, and could also end up costing less than using other metals.

Generally, improving the way current flows through a transistor can increase chip performance and reduce power consumption--letting chipmakers create ever faster processors by packing more transistors onto them without the fear of excessive power use, heat generation or electrical interference. Researchers have said such problems must be aggressively addressed if Moore's Law, which states that transistor counts double every two years, is to hold out.

AMD's researchers will be joined at the San Francisco conference by peers from Intel, IBM, Motorola, Texas Instruments and others--all addressing their various efforts to keep the evolution of microprocessors rolling along smoothly.

Intel will detail its efforts to bring out higher performing chips at the 90 nanometer level--the next chip manufacturing step, expected to be introduced in 2003. (The nanometer measurement refers to the average distance between transistors on the chip.)

AMD plans to begin selling a version of its Opteron and Athlon 64 chips built with 90-nanometer manufacturing, starting in early 2004. Meanwhile, many of AMD's technologies, discussed by its researchers at IEDM, focus on delivering chips at the 65-nanometer level and below--two generations, and about five more years, in the future.

No time like the present
As for now, and the immediate future, AMD is working to stay competitive by wringing more performance out of its current Athlon XP chip while it puts the finishing touches on its Opteron and its Athlon 64.

AMD on Tuesday launched the Athlon MP 2400+. The chip is the latest in its line of processors designed for workstations and servers used by businesses.

The chipmaker also announced three new Athlon XP chips for desktops--the 2600+, 2700+ and 2800+--in November that run at speeds between 2.13GHz and 2.25GHz, according to PC makers. The model rating system compares the new Athlons' relative performance with a previous version of the chip. But it also serves as a rough comparison to Intel's Pentium 4. The Athlon XP 2800+, AMD contends, performs the same or possibly better than a 2.8GHz Pentium 4.

Several PC builders have begun offering the 2800+, with Falcon Northwest introducing on Monday desktops containing the chip. Hewlett-Packard, which is offering the XP 2600+ , has no immediate plans to offer the 2700+ chip, a company representative said.

Down the line, AMD will begin selling a version of the Athlon XP, dubbed Barton, with a supersized 512KB cache. The cache, which holds data close to the processor core for quick access, will give the chip an additional boost before AMD launches the Opteron for servers and the Athlon 64 for desktops. Those chips are expected during the first quarter, or possibly at the beginning of the second quarter, of 2003.

The new chips help bolster AMD's prospects for hanging on to its market share in the future, analysts said.

"We're seeing some improvement on the top end of the Athlon XP, where we have Barton on the schedule," said Dean McCarron, analyst with Mercury Research. "It pretty much amounts to AMD holding position. It's a case of how the Hammer (Opteron and Athlon 64) product bears out, and does that push AMD up or not."

AMD's market share sunk to 12.4 percent of the PC chip market in the third quarter, versus 21.8 percent at the company's market-share peak in the second quarter of 2001, McCarron said. The third-quarter figure excludes sales of Microsoft's Xbox game console--which uses Intel PC chips.

AMD was hard hit by excess chip inventory produced by a slowdown in PC sales during the second quarter of this year, McCarron said. AMD has said its prospects have improved for the fourth quarter due to stronger sales.