AMD Rolls Out Athlon XP

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. releases what it says is the fastest PC processor on the market.

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Tuesday released what it says is the fastest PC processor on the market.

However, the Athlon XP 1800+, a 1.53GHz chip, clocked 470MHz slower than its top rival from Intel Corp.

That apparent paradox highlights the difficult marketing challenge facing AMD. The Sunnyvale, Calif., company will try to convince consumers that while Intels Pentium 4 line has higher clock speeds, the Athlon XP products are as fast, if not faster, than even Intels top 2GHz chip.

"Hands down, this is the highest performance product out in the marketplace," said Mark Bode, marketing manager for AMDs desktop products. "We have a solution that fundamentally outperforms the competition across the board."

AMD today introduced four processors that comprise its newest product line, the Athlon XP, formerly known by the code-name Palomino. The chips feature several enhancements to boost performance over its predecessor, such as data pre-fetching and translation look-aside buffers (TLB), as well as a design changes to reduce power consumption.

But while most consumers may not grasp such technical intricacies, theyll likely take note of AMDs new branding strategy, which relegates the once-prominently mentioned clock speed to the fine print.

Instead, AMD will tout a model number that it contends more truly reflects the performance of its chips. Thus, AMD today introduced the Athlon XP 1800+ (clocked at 1.53GHz), the 1700+ (1.47GHz), the 1600+ (1.4GHz) and the 1500+ (1.33GHz).

AMD said the new labeling was required to counteract the "megahertz myth" that was created by Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel when it introduced its Pentium 4 architecture last year. Specifically, AMD alleges Intels new chip design sacrificed performance in order to enable faster clock speeds.

As a result, the processor essentially handles less work per clock cycle compared to the Pentium III or Athlon, thereby making traditional processor-to-processor comparisons based on clock speed useless, AMD officials said.

While many analysts agree that clock speeds are not a reliable indicator of processor performance, theyre skeptical whether AMD will be able to get that message through to consumers.

"For people in IT community and those of us who have technical backgrounds, thats not a big stretch. We already know there are many factors that affect performance," said Tony Massimini, an analyst with Semico Research Corp., in Phoenix. "But in the consumer market, they like to keep the message short and sweet. Certainly when you look at all the ads in the papers, on TV and at the stores, its the clock speed thats touted."

"Frankly, they have a good case," said Roger Kay, an analyst with International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass. "You should measure the work done and not just the speed of the processor."

But AMD not only must convince consumers of that, he said, but PC makers as well.

"I dont know if consumers care that much about processor speeds, but the people that do care a lot are the OEMs," Kay said. "If youve watched the parade of OEMs making statements about AMD lately, it sends a message."

In the last two months, IBM and Gateway Inc. have disclosed that they will be phasing out their use of Athlon processor, choosing instead to rely more on Intels Pentium 4 products.

AMDs slipping customer base comes at an especially difficult time for the chipmaker as it seeks to not only weather a year-long slump in PC sales, but also increasing price competition from Intel.

AMDs relatively low initial pricing for the new chip further underscores how competitive the business environment is. In March 2000, when AMD introduced the 1GHz Athlon, it priced the chip at $1,200, based on 1,000-unit quantities.

Todays pricing reflects a much leaner reality, with the 1800+ listed at $252, the 1700+ at $190, the 1600+ at $160, and the 1500+ at $130.

Despite seeing some erosion in its customer base, AMD has lined up several leading computer makers that will promote systems features the new chips, including Compaq Computer Corp., Fujitsu Ltd., MicronPC LLC and NEC Inc.

"There is no questions that this is a better Athlon than the previous one," said Kevin Krewell, an analyst with Cahners In-Stat/MDR, in Sunnyvale. Considering all the enhancements AMD has made, "Id say youre talking about 5 to 6 percent faster performance" based on the changes alone, he said.

But despite the Athlon XPs new features, Krewell said, the 2GHz Intel Pentium 4 remains king of the hill, for now.

"I think that there is no question that Intel will hold the high ground for a while," Krewell said, "at least until Hammer time," referring to AMDs release late next year of a new 64-bit high-end processor.