AMD's is bigger

— 10:45 AM on March 6, 2000

We're talking about processor clock frequencies, of course; what did you think we were talking about? AMD announced today that they've begun shipping Athlon processors at 900 MHz, 950 MHz, and 1000 MHz (a/k/a 1 gigahertz). Gateway and Compaq will be the initial retailers; it doesn't look like you'll be buying one of these on Pricewatch anytime soon. They do have a fairly entertaining press release, though. Check this out:

"Every schoolchild recognizes Neil Armstrong as the first man to walk on the moon, Roger Bannister as the first to run the four-minute mile, and Edmund Hillary as the first to scale Mt. Everest. Nobody remembers who got there second. Today's launch of the 1GHz AMD Athlon processor permanently secures AMD's place in the record books. . . ."
So there you have it; now AMD is right up there with Neil Armstrong. Now how many of you out there would've known who Roger Bannister and Edmund Hillary were, like "every schoolchild" does? Come on now, be honest.

A quick pop over to Gateway's home page revealed that they do indeed have gigahertz Athlon systems available for purchase; you can get a fairly loaded one (19" monitor, GeForce, 30GB hard drive, etc.) for around $3K. I'll leave it to Scott to renew the Mac/PC price thing, although I'm sure the words "DOUBLE THE MEGAHERTZ" will come in there somewhere.

The other required reading in this story is, of course, over at Anandtech. As always, Anand has the skinny that you're not going to find in the press release, and in this case it's some particularly good stuff. Here's a link to the article itself. Of particular interest is the second page, which lists specifications on the chips.

First off, you'll note that AMD has once again backed off the cache timing, this time changing it to 1/3 the CPU speed. This means the scores on a production 900 MHz chip are going to take a hit compared to the Athlon 800 we overclocked to 900. Indeed, a quick look at Anand's benchmarks shows very little difference in performance between the 850 and 900.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, these new chips have gotten a quiet little bump in voltage. While all Athlons up to 850 MHz run at 1.6V core voltage, the new entries run at 1.8V. As Anand points out, AMD is basically using an old overclocker's trick here, bumping up the voltage to increase stability.

So what does this mean? Well, first off it means that AMD really needs to get their L2 moved on-die. Having to keep backing off cache timings causes some noticeable "humps" in the line-up, with "faster" (megahertz-wise, at least), more expensive chips not turning in much better scores than the next step down.

Second, it means (to me, anyway) that AMD kinda got taken by surprise here. I think if AMD had known that Intel was going to be announcing a GHz part when they did (never mind whether Intel is shipping or not) they would've started transitioning the Athlon to copper interconnects to maintain their speed advantage. The fact that they're pumping up the voltage tells me they're compensating for being caught off-guard.

I think AMD's original plan here was to bide their time, chucking out 50 MHz here and 50 MHz there, hopefully getting the on-die L2 parts working so they wouldn't have to keep messing with cache timings. Intel forced them to play their hand early.

Of course, the Athlon at 1 GHz is still the fastest thing out there, even beating out a PIII-800 equipped with the insanely expensive RDRAM, according to Anand. The fact that the Athlon needed a 200 MHz advantage to overcome the RDRAM could eventually become a factor, but only if (A) Intel can start shipping chips that equal AMD's in clock speed, and (B) RDRAM becomes cheap enough that people can afford to buy it without taking out a second mortgage on the old homestead.

Of course, the standard stuff about "competition is good" and "new high-end chips means cheaper low and mid-range chips" applies here, although it probably won't kick in for a while, since currently you have to buy a system to get a GHz Athlon. As AMD's yields inevitably continue to improve (and/or they switch to copper interconnects) I'm sure they'll start selling the GHz part as a separate component. Aren't . . . CPU-waving contests fun to watch? Heh heh.

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