Friday night topic: The Athlon 64 delay

— 7:30 PM on January 31, 2003

I spent some time today talking to an AMD rep about the delay of the Athlon 64 chip, among other things, and he had some interesting things to say about why the desktop version of the Hammer processor has been delayed until September. First and foremost, he said, the company underestimated the challenges of getting an SOI transistor to scale. SOI, or silicon-on-insulator, is a new fab process technique intended to improve chip characteristics. The problem AMD is fighting is much like the one NVIDIA is wrestling with for the GeForce FX: a chip must be designed to be fabbed a certain way, using a 130nm process (NV30) or using a 130nm process with SOI (Hammer). AMD's eighth-gen processors are intended to be built using SOI, and AMD has obviously had trouble getting the yields it wants out of its SOI process. As a result, Hammer will launch primarily as a server chip—where overall platform performance matters more than raw CPU performance—at relatively low clock speeds of 1.4, 1.6, and 1.8GHz.

The Hammer core running at these lower speeds would have a hard time competing side-by-side, in a purely 32-bit software environment, against chips like the Pentium 4 and AMD's own "Barton" core Athlon XP processors. (Barton, which launches February 10th, is not fabbed using SOI, and should be readily available for sale on the launch date.) Rather than launch the Athlon 64 for the desktop early and see relatively lackluster performance versus current chips (as Intel arguably did with the Pentium 4), AMD is planning to wait until September, by which time the company hopes to have raised yields, and thus clock speeds, for its SOI process.

In this context, AMD's recent announcement of a technology agreement with IBM looks less like a forward-looking deal and more like a move aimed squarely at getting Hammer back on track as soon as possible. UMC wasn't jilted just because Hector likes Big Blue better, it seems. IBM pioneered SOI chip production, and AMD is already learning some tricks from IBM's foundry types. With luck, AMD may be able to avoid major reworkings of Hammer while bringing Athlon 64 up to speed.

That seems to be the plan, anyway. At this point, Hammer has been delayed more often than a French declaration of war. We'll see how it all works out—in time.

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