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Athlon 64 like Elvis, is on the dark side of the Moon

Whispers from the hardware front
Mon Sep 01 2003, 11:30
Amd-apos-s-flying-saucer-touches-down-on-planet-dresdonia THE TOPICS of Athlon 64 performance, launch positioning, and scaling have been hotly debated lately, with little help coming from Sunnyvale itself. Rumors of multiple processor sockets, AthlonXP potentially being transported to the Socket 754 platform, and repeated 64-bit Elvis sightings have all confused and interested the hardware community of late.

At this point, it appears that AMD's plan is to introduce two Athlon 64 processors in late September — a consumer-level, Socket 754 pin version (debuting at 2 GHz, or 3200+) and a high-end, 940-pin version called Athlon FX-51, which will essentially be a re-badged Opteron. This Opteron look-alike will only be available in limited quantities through the end of the year, will run at 2.2 GHz, and, intriguingly, appears to not have a model rating or a formal GHz number attached to it at all. The major difference between the two processors is their memory controllers—Socket 754 processors use a single-channel DDR design, which 940-pin processors use a dual-channel, 128-bit system. Neither CPU will be dual-capable, despite earlier reports to the contrary. The 940-pin CPU, like Opteron, will require registered DDR, though its not yet clear if this is a board function (and thus may change) or a CPU requirement.

Performance on the 3200+ Athlon 64 and how it will compare to the AthlonXP and P4 3.2 GHz is still anyone's guess, but from what we've seen the 940-pin Athlon 64 is going to give the P4 one hell of a hard time, even blowing it out of the water on several tests that were formerly P4 stalwarts. Of course, nothing is official until launch date, but from the looks of things Intel does indeed have something to worry about come next month—and this is in 32-bit code, not 64.

Performance, scalability, and price are the three challenges AMD must overcome starting on September 24th for the processor to be a success. Even if Northwood is hammered as thoroughly as the numbers we've seen suggest, Prescott's larger cache and higher speeds are coming far too quickly for AMD to rest on its laurels and do nothing. Troublingly, the price on the high-end Athlon 64 part is rumored to be extremely high—potentially over $800 for a single chip. At this speed, 940-pin users might do better just ponying up for an Opteron and saving some money. Prices on Socket 754 are supposed to be better, but exactly how much bang for the buck S754 will provide is still unknown.

At all costs, AMD must avoid a paper launch situation. Even if the high-end Athlon 64 does cost $800, whatever CPUs are needed on hand to meet demand must be there. The smartest thing for AMD to do at this point is to ratchet the clockspeed up as fast as possible, keeping the pressure on Intel and possibly gaining ground in performance.

First impressions in this business are incredibly important. The AthlonXP has never fully gotten past the early impression that it was an extremely hot processor, even though the modern 3200+ actually radiates less energy than the 3.2 GHz P4. The Pentium 4 itself has had a hard time getting past perceptions of it as inefficient and slow. In both cases there are (or were) truth to the rumors, but the situation has, at times, been exaggerated so as to seem worse than it truly is.

Similarly, AMD (if it uses its nous) will aggressively ramp Opteron to the point where it's capable of beating the P4 soundly and repeatedly throughout the next six months, thus creating the impression in the minds of buyers that Opteron is a very high performance product both in 32 and 64-bit code. Rumored Intel Prescott problems, if true, could be the best thing that ever happened to AMD. µ


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