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Via, AMD bring out cheap chips

The chipset maker takes the wraps off its first microprocessors while AMD unveils a 550-MHz version of the K6-2 chip, livening the budget sector of the PC market.

Via took the wraps off its first microprocessors today while AMD unveiled a 550-MHz version of the K6-2 chip to heat things up in the budget sector of the PC market.

Via's Cyrix III processor, which will start shipping in volume quantities by April, is effectively the first clone of Intel's Celeron processor that can fit into the same computer "motherboards" as the Celeron. AMD's processors, for instance, fit into motherboards based around a different design.

The first two Cyrix IIIs hit a "performance rating" of 533 and 500, said Doug Phillips, product marketing manager for the Cyrix group. The chips actually run at 400 MHz and 433 MHz, respectively, he said, but they come with 100-MHz, 124-MHz or 133-MHz system buses, faster than the 66-MHz system bus found on the current Celeron.

As a result of the faster bus, the Cyrix chips might have a slower clock speed, but they achieve benchmark results that are similar to Celerons running at 533-MHz and 500-MHz.

Originally code-named "Joshua," the new chips are based around the Cayenne processor that was under development at Cyrix, a former subsidiary of National Semiconductor bought by Via last year. National will manufacture the chip, which should insulate Via from legal challenges, Via executives have said.

Intel is planning to boost the bus speed on the Celeron in the near future, but Via will counter with architectural enhancements to keep pace and later in the year release the "Samuel" generation of processors, Phillips said. The Cyrix chips also come with 256KB of performance-enhancing secondary cache, double the amount found on Celerons.

No computer makers have announced computers containing the chip, but that could change. The company is getting a number of responses from second-tier manufacturers in Taiwan.

Although analysts give the company and the processor a reasonable chance of success, most caution that Via is entering a difficult market. National sold Cyix to Via, after all, because of repeated financial losses. AMD also lost several hundred million dollars in 1999 because of processor price wars. The company's fortunes have only turned around recently because of the success of its Athlon processor, which competes in the performance segments, and a shortage of Intel processors.

"It will probably be a relatively successful part, but it remains a question of what their volume is and what their market is," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

Via said it will sell the 500-MHz-equivalent chip at $89 and the 533-equivalent at $99 in volume quantities. While those prices sound cheap, they are relatively high, especially for a chip without an established market or reputation. Several retailers sell a 500-MHz K6-2 for close to $70 while 400-MHz K6-2s sell for close to $50. Via's chips will likely sell at steep discounts.

"The actual price of non-Intel processors has been substantially lower," McCarron said. "Athlon has been the only exception."

Meanwhile, AMD released a 550-MHz version of the K6-2, which makes it the fastest chip in the budget segment. Intel's fastest Celeron to date tops out at 533 MHz. AMD's new chip sells for $189 in volume quantities.