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Gateway finds glitch in 1-GHz AMD systems

The computer maker finds a bug with its systems containing the Athlon Thunderbird chip from Advanced Micro Devices but is working to solve the problem.

Gateway has found a bug with its computers containing the 1-GHz Athlon "Thunderbird" chip from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) but is working to solve the problem and offering to fix affected computers.

The bug, which was discovered last week during internal testing, prompts computers containing the chip to "lock up," said a Gateway spokesman. Few computers with the 1-GHz Thunderbird have been shipped to customers, and the problem so far has cropped up with only a certain percentage of computers in the lab, the spokesman added. The company has not yet received reports of defects from customers.

Although the cause of the problem has yet to be determined, Gateway executives said the chip itself is not the likely cause. Instead, the flaw probably results from the overall design of the system or other components.

"It involves the 1-GHz with the Thunderbird. We don't know the cause. We are looking into the problem," the spokesman said. "We think it is a motherboard or power supply issue."

Gateway has suspended shipments of the 1-GHz Thunderbird computers, part of its Select line, until July 10. In the interim, Gateway is selling a Select computer containing a standard 1-GHz Athlon chip. The new computers start at $2,799, the same as the Thunderbird computers. The Thunderbird Athlon contains enhancements over standard Athlons and provides better performance, according to published benchmark tests.

AMD and rival Intel are locked in a competitive battle to put out the fastest chip on the market and have accelerated their respective product road maps to best each other. Processors running at 1 GHz, for instance, weren't due originally until June. Both companies announced processors running at this speed in March, however.

This has prompted computer makers to release new computers at a faster rate. Gateway denied that acceleration in the chip world contributed to any design flaws but acknowledged that chip speeds are increasing at a faster rate.

Keith Diefendorff, publisher of the Microprocessor Report, said the flaw is likely the typical sort of problem that occurs with any chip transition. "The problems get a bit more difficult the higher up you go, but I don't think there is a long-term issue here," he said.

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Chip competition
The company began shipping versions of its Select consumer computer containing the 1-GHz Thunderbird Athlon on June 12, a week after the chip was formally announced by AMD. Consumers started receiving computers around June 19, the spokesman said.

The problem surfaced last week. The substitute system containing the traditional Athlon chip didn't exist until the recall; it was devised as an interim solution.

Customers who purchased computers potentially subject to the problem are encouraged to contact Gateway technical support. A range of cures is available, including a processor swap.

Thunderbird Athlons contain 256KB of secondary cache integrated onto the chip, while standard Athlons contain a 512KB secondary cache located on separate chips. Although smaller, the integrated cache runs faster and provides better performance.

The Athlon chip recently has fallen behind the Pentium III in terms of performance. Integrating the cache cut the gap and gave Athlon, according to Anandtech and other benchmarks, a slight lead.

Thunderbird chips are made with either aluminum or copper wires. These chips offer equal performance. However, Gateway said that so far, it has only used the aluminum chips.