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ClawHammer, SledgeHammer—JackHammer? BallpeenHammer? TackHammer?
AMD is introducing Athlon 64 chips based on two Hammer variants today, code-named ClawHammer and SledgeHammer. The principal difference between Claw and Sledge is the width of the chip's connection to memory. ClawHammer's memory controller has a single, 64-bit path to RAM, while SledgeHammer's is a dual-channel or 128-bit design.

AMD originally planned for all Athlon 64 chips to be based on ClawHammer, while Opteron workstation/server processors would be based on Sledge. Turns out, though, AMD has decided to intro a top-of-the-line desktop chip with a dual-channel memory controller called the Athlon 64 FX. (Somebody phone NVIDIA marketing!) This chip is essentially a remarked Opteron running at 2.2GHz. To be more specific, the 2.2GHz flavor is dubbed "Athlon 64 FX-51", and it gets no other designation. FX-51. That's it. AMD figures the folks who will be willing to cough up the $733 list price for this baby will know how it performs from having read publications like this one, so there will be no Pentium 4 equivalency games played here.

If you want to play those games, you can pick up a non-FX Athlon 64 like the Athlon 64 3200+. These ClawHammer-based products have a 64-bit path to memory and come in the 754-pin package originally intended for all Athlon 64s. AMD will initially be selling the Athlon 64 3200+, which runs at 2GHz, for $417—a veritable bargain compared to the FX model.


The Athlon 64 FX (left) comes in a ceramic package, while
the Athlon 64 3200+ wears an organic package


With 940 pins, Athlon 64 FX (left) would make a good brush.
The Athlon 64 3200+ (right) sports only 754 pins.

Because of AMD's late decision to go with a SledgeHammer-based desktop chip, the Athlon 64 FX drops into Opteron motherboards with 940-pin sockets like the Asus SK8N. Of course, this fact messes up AMD's careful market segmentation plans, especially since it now looks like the future of Athlon 64 is 128-bit memory interfaces. To remedy this problem, Athlon 64 FX processors will soon get their very own, physically incompatible 939-pin socket. To aid in the infrastructure transition, Athlon 64 FX chips will be available in both 940-pin and 939-pin packages for the duration of 2004.

Word has it AMD may introduce a separate, 941-pin package later this year just out of spite.

I kid. I kid.

These market segmentation games don't bother me too much, so long as AMD delivers a quality product. Motherboard manufacturers, however, may be a different story. I expect many of them are scrambling right now to prepare 939-pin motherboards for use with upcoming Athlon 64 FX chips.

If you're thinking the prices on these Athlon 64 chips sound steep, you're thinking right. AMD is only introducing two models of the Athlon 64, and the cheap one costs north of four hundred bucks. There are several possible reasons, not mutually exclusive, for these high prices. AMD says it wants to end the practice of pricing its chips below Intel's when AMD's chips are technically superior. To that end, the company says it's positioning the Athlon 64 against Intel's upcoming Prescott chips. The Athlon XP can continue to battle it out with existing Pentium 4 chips, and the Athlon 64 FX will sit alone atop the desktop performance throne. Like so:


Source: AMD.

This looks like wishful thinking to me, but perhaps it will help AMD raise its average selling prices, even if the strategy doesn't succeed entirely. I can't help but think the most important reason for high prices on the Athlon 64 has to do with limited supply. Price can be a very effective rationing system, and the fact AMD isn't introducing slower, lower-cost Athlon 64 chips suggests such rationing may be necessary at present.