AMD's K7: Better than Intel's best processor?
July 8, 1999
by Phil Lemmons
(IDG) -- You've probably never bought a PC with an AMD CPU. You may not be considering one now. All the same, you owe AMD your thanks. If you've bought a PC in the last two or three years, the number two chipmaker has saved you a lot of money. Not that AMD is trying to play the generous uncle. It's struggling to make a profit. And what a struggle it has been. AMD's K5, touted as a challenger to the Pentium, stumbled in the starting gate. AMD's K6 took a momentary lead over Intel's Pentium MMX. More recently, the K6-III-450 nosed in front of the Pentium III-450 and (on some benchmarks) the Pentium III-500, only to be quickly eclipsed by the Pentium III-550. Always the off-brand and usually the performance laggard, AMD has had to settle for a big chunk of the low end of the market. No doubt about it: Keeping up with a competitor is tough when you have to stay compatible as well.
Nevertheless, AMD's limited success against Intel shows what a little competition can do. The chip giant has been forced to cut prices across the board. Without AMD, there would be no Celeron -- Intel rushed out its budget chip after AMD began capturing the low end of the market. Once a cacheless loser, Celeron soon became a winner in the battle for the bargain basement. With performance rivaling Pentium-IIIs for much lower prices, Celeron chips offer excellent value.
Will AMD pull another AMD?
AMD's K7 is arriving as you read this. If it bombs, PCs may never be such bargains again. On the other hand, if the K7 keeps AMD's promises, it may heighten competition and lead to price cuts not only in the budget sector but also at the top of the line. The industry is abuzz with speculation about the K7. Companies that have seldom sold AMD systems now fret about the possibility of competing with the K7, which may substantially outperform anything in Intel's arsenal for the next several months.
Companies gearing up to sell K7 systems are fretting, too. They think the K7 will be a big winner if AMD can make it in sufficient volume at the highest clock speeds. But many of these companies fear AMD will do what one PC executive calls "pulling an AMD." That phrase -- which means falling short of promises with regard to delivery date, performance, volume, or all three -- says a lot about AMD's history.
AMD certainly can spec processors with the best of them. The K7 is promised to run at 600 MHz when made with AMD's current 0.25-micron process. Later this year, the company's move to a 0.18-micron process will shrink the K7 and make higher speeds possible. Nothing less than 1-GHz K7s are due in the year 2000.
AMD's processors have always done well in integer performance, which is important for common business tasks, but have lagged in floating-point performance, which counts most in elaborate financial models, engineering, and games. The K7 claims superior integer performance and even better floating point, with three floating-point units on board to the Pentium III's two. In addition, the K7 is loaded with multimedia instructions. Gamers take note: AMD promises that optimized drivers will be available at launch from NVidia, 3dfx, and Matrox, with S3 and ATI drivers coming soon.
When the K7's on-chip 128KB L1 cache becomes too small, the K7 will call on the 200-MHz EV6 bus developed for Digital's Alpha processors. Unlike the Pentium III, the EV6 bus has a "source-synchronous" design. If fast enough memory can be had, the EV6 bus will give the K7 a big edge over the Pentium III -- Intel's current top bus speed is 100 MHz.
Bring in the reserves
Besides the doubts about AMD's ability to deliver on time, achieve claimed performance levels, and manufacture in volume, there's the matter of Intel's back room. Each time AMD has challenged at the high end, Intel has quickly introduced a powerful answer. It almost seems as though Intel saves its top performers to trump AMD's product introductions. But if the K7 comes through, Intel will have to bring out the next generation of chips sooner than anyone expects.
Though we evaluate products impartially, we can't help pulling for AMD to succeed in introducing the K7 as promised. Since National Semiconductor/Cyrix abandoned the race for performance leadership, AMD is the last hope for keeping competitive pressure on Intel. Lesser challengers than the K7 brought the wave of price reductions in low-end PCs. If the K7 does the same for the high end, consumers and businesses will reap great rewards. If AMD can't compete, on the other hand, you'd better start budgeting more for your next PC.
Phil Lemmons is editorial director of PC World.
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