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Analysts say Athlon bests Pentium 4

PC World

(IDG) -- Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon processor is the best PC processor on the planet -- for now.

That was the consensus of analysts at Microprocessor Report, which awarded the chip its prestigious Best PC Processor prize during a ceremony Thursday night. The Athlon's nod was just the first of several unexpected wins.

This is the second year in a row the analysts gave the Athlon the prize, but this year it faced competition from Intel's Pentium 4 chip, launched in late 2000. The Athlon also defeated its low-cost sibling the Duron and IBM's PowerPC 750CX.

Despite a radical new design and speeds of up to 1.5 GHz, the early versions of the P4 just haven't performed that well across the board, said Kevin Krewell, Microprocessor Report senior editor.

"The P4 is too unbalanced," he said after the ceremony. While the chip performs well on multimedia benchmarks, it doesn't execute noticeably better than the 1-GHz Pentium III in office applications.

The Athlon, on the other hand, is a very balanced processor with a history of strong benchmark scores that continue to rise as AMD cranks up the frequency and makes other improvements, he said. For example, the move from a 512KB off-die L2 cache to a 256KB on-die cache was a big boost for performance. Plus, AMD recently introduced a chip set to support high-speed DDR memory, which promises to boost performance further, Krewell noted.

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Despite the tough competition between AMD and Intel, PC buyers shouldn't expect a speed race this year, Krewell said. It's clear that Intel and the P4 will dominate in the realm of pure megahertz. However, AMD is likely to keep its lead in actual performance for some time, he said. Right now, a PC running a 1.1-GHz Athlon with standard PC133 SDRAM will outperform one with a 1.5-GHz P4 with RDRAM on most benchmarks, he said.

Systems using the P4 probably won't outperform Athlon-based systems on most benchmarks until the second half of this year, when the P4 hits 2 GHz and the Athlon is stretched at 1.5 GHz, he said.

One thing that could derail the P4's performance improvements is Intel's plans to offer a new chip set that supports less-expensive SDRAM instead of the pricier RDRAM, he said. "Using SDRAM will hurt the P4," he said, because the RDRAM is part of the reason the P4 does so well with multimedia functions.

Transmeta, Itanium Shot Down

The Athlon's victory is just one of several that seems to indicate the analysts' preference for chips with tried and true technologies over sweeping new designs. In addition to choosing the Athlon instead of the P4, analysts picked Intel's Mobile Pentium III with SpeedStep over Transmeta's much hyped but poorly reviewed Crusoe CPU, and Sun's UltraSPARC III over Intel's highly anticipated new Itanium.

Mobile processors used to be hand-me-downs from the desktop, modified to fit in a notebook, Krewell said. But that's not the case anymore, and companies are devoting time and effort to notebook-specific processors, he added. It's paying off.

Transmeta in particular deserves credit for drawing plenty of attention to the growing low-power, thin-and-light segment of the notebook market, Krewell said. "They've been a trailblazer, and they got the attention of the big player in the industry," he said.

SpeedStep Technology Recognized

That big player is Intel, which won the mobile award for its mobile Pentium III with SpeedStep for "its lead in performance throughout the year," according to Microprocessor Report. Currently the fastest PIII with SpeedStep runs at 850 MHz; the chip should hit 1 GHz soon, Krewell said.

Accepting for Intel, company research fellow Fred Pollack acknowledged Transmeta's impact.

"Good competition in this space has stimulated Intel," he said. Despite his kind words, Pollack still jabbed the rival, telling a story about perception versus reality -- an obvious knock on Transmeta's overblown performance expectations for its Crusoe chip. Intel's selection proves "sometimes reality does win," he said.

Other award winners Thursday included the Cisco Toaster 2 for best network processor; the Equator MAP-CA for best media processor; the National Semiconductor Geode for best highly integrated processor; the Texas Instruments TMS320c55x for best DSP processor; and Intel's XScale for best embedded processor.

Future Tech: Tiny

The evening ended with a look forward by Steve Leibson, the editorial director of Microprocessor Report. Creating new ways to make smaller, more powerful processors is critical to keeping the chip industry moving forward, Leibson said. And it's likely, thanks to a practical extreme-ultraviolet imaging system created by the EUV LLC (Extreme Ultraviolet Limited Liability Company), a consortium of manufacturers and labs led by Intel, he noted. Leibson said this technology will allow the industry to maintain Moore's Law for another 15 years.

Pronounced by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, that precept suggests the number of transistors that can be placed on a sliver of silicon will double every two years. Moore issued the statement in 1965, and Intel maintains that it has remained true since the release of its 4004 processor in 1971.

Also coming: the capability to spray transistors onto just about any surface. So, for example, instead of a sticker on each apple at the market, each could have its own chip, he said. Also, nanofabrication is on the way. Researchers at the University of California at Irvine have fabricated 15-nanometer molybdenum wires. In nontechnical terms, Leibson noted, "that's small."

Leibson said the processor industry's next question is, What will we do with technology that small? "We'll figure something out," he said.

Analysis: Pentium 4: Boon or bust?
December 4, 2000
Best Buy stores pull first wave of HP Pentium 4 machines
December 4, 2000
Pentium 4 glitch caught at last minute
November 23, 2000
Review: Pentium 4 a disappointment at 1.5 GHz
November 21, 2000

AMD puts Athlon pedal to the metal
AMD ups Athlon ante with high-speed memory support
Pentium 4: boon or bust?
Chip sales to slacken in 2001
Pentium 4 ships: A disappointment at 1.5 GHz
AMD plans third fab for 2004
AMD bumps Duron up to 850 MHz
Transmeta: Longer life, less performance

Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.
Intel Corp.
Transmeta Corp.

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