Intel, AMD Make Temporary Gains

The chip makers will continue jockeying for position.

Intels unveiling of a breakthrough technology that it will use in its 45-nanometer processor design later this year is the latest step in the chip makers efforts to win back momentum from rival Advanced Micro Devices.

The company said Jan. 27 that the technological advance will help address the issue of electrical leakage in the chips, a key issue as it and other processor manufacturers continue to shrink the size of the chips. Intels announcement came at the same time that IBM unveiled similar advancements.

Intel is touting the new technology as another example of its technical superiority over AMD, saying it will be the first to offer it in 45-nm chips, due by the end of this year. This comes just months after Intel beat AMD in the quad-core race, releasing its "Clovertown" chips last fall. Intel officials claim that the technology used to create its "Penryn" 45-nm processors, which uses a new material called high-k for the transistor gate dielectric and a combination of material for the transistor gate electrode, is putting the company more than a year ahead of the rest of the chip industry.

However, analysts say any advantage gained by Intel will be short-lived. AMDs relationship with IBM will help even out the market when it releases its own 45-nm chips by 2008. In addition, AMDs quad-core processor, dubbed Barcelona, will be released later this year. By using what it calls a "native" design, meaning the four x86 processing cores are fused together on a single piece of silicon—as opposed to Intels quad-core chip, which ties two dual-core chips onto a piece of silicon—the company believes its architecture is superior and will swing momentum back its way.

With such developments happening so close to one another, the race for prominence in the chip field will not resemble the days when Intel was far ahead, nor will it return to the past few years when AMD seemed to gain the upper hand in terms of innovation with dual-core and x86 breakthroughs. Instead, analysts say, the field will consistently shift, with AMD and Intel jockeying for position.

"Its a classic game of leapfrog, one ahead of the other, with the lead changing every 12 to 18 months," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. "Both companies are pretty well-equipped to move ahead at a pretty consistent pace. Intel has greater market share and resources. Considering that, AMD has been able to keep up with Intel, and Intel didnt really move ahead until Woodcrest."

Brookwood said that even though Barcelona is a 65-nm chip, it still is a new product for AMD, and its customers and IT professionals will want to judge it against Intels quad-core offerings.

Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT, said Intel still lags behind AMD in terms of innovation but that the company has done well in improving its lot with the IT field from just a year ago. When AMDs Opteron chip first arrived in 2003, Intel lost a critical step in the x86 server market, King said. Its last few moves—the 45-nm announcement, the quad-core chips and its new deal with Sun Microsystems—have helped it gain back lost ground. AMD, like Intel, also has deals with the top-tier OEMs, including Sun, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

"I think Intel has performed remarkably well with product refreshes in the last year," King said. "They have refreshed their PC and their server lines and firmly moved into multicore development, and they seem to have all their ducks in a row. This year with Vista will be critical, but I think they are really in better shape than they have been in quite a while."

Even as Intel touted the latest announcement, AMD executives pointed to a Jan. 30 report by Mercury Research that showed AMD picked up market share in the x86 space—25.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2006 as opposed to 23.3 percent in the third quarter. However, the same report showed that Intel gained back some lost growth in the x86 server space due to its dual-core and quad-core processors. ´