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AMD's new math
The biggest news with the Athlon XP may not be the technology, but how AMD plans to market it. We have dwelt at some length here at TR on the issue of clock speeds and performance, from the great Mac Wars to our Pentium 4 2GHz review, where I offered a lengthy explanation of how MHz has mattered in the PC market in the past, and how the game has changed with the Pentium 4.

More MHz myth madness
The long and the short of it is this: a processor's clock speed—measured in MHz and GHz—isn't a reliable indicator, all by itself, of performance. We've seen that time and time again, as Athlons at 1.2 and 1.4GHz have handed higher-clocked Pentium 4 processors their heads. On a platter. The Pentium 4's NetBurst microarchitecture simply does less work per clock cycle than the Athlon. That fact doesn't necessarily reflect poorly on the P4 or on the Athlon, it's just the way things are. An Athlon Thunderbird at 1.2GHz is roughly equivalent, performance-wise, to a 1.7GHz Pentium 4. A 1.4GHz Athlon runs neck-and-neck with a 2GHz P4.

Trouble is, the Pentium 4's super-high clock speeds tend to look mighty appealing on the features list of a brand-new PC. Given the choice between a 1.7GHz Intel and a 1.2GHz AMD at about the same price, the mythical Joe Sixpack is probably gonna opt for the 1.7GHz Intel. That uncomfortable fact threatens to become a marketing nightmare for AMD. Few companies would want to face the daunting prospect of explaining to Joe Sixpack why their 1.2GHz system is faster than the other guys' 1.7GHz box.

Apple tried it, but it didn't work especially well for them—and people already knew Macs were weird to begin with.

AMD's solution—check that, AMD's coping mechanism—is to try another spin at a well-worn tactic from the bad old days, when AMD and Cyrix CPUs played a sad second fiddle to Intel's: the Pentium Rating. Well, it's not exactly the Pentium Rating, but it is this: assigning a model number to a CPU based on relative performance rather than clock speed.

When we first caught wind of AMD's plans on this front, Dissonance teed off. He wrote:

While Intel has been able to capitalize on Joe Sixpack's love of high numbers, AMD's naming scheme would only manipulate it. AMD isn't lying outright, but there's an air of deception when one defies industry standards that even the MHz-crippled Mac adheres to. If AMD's naming scheme didn't so closely resemble the MHz values posted by Intel, then it could be forgiven here. However, using model numbers similar in value to MHz, in an attempt to compare performance with Intel, only does the consumer a disservice by failing to disclose the processor's actual speed.
Techies don't tend to like marketing types and their plans anyhow, but when a hint of deception is in the air, we close in like a pack of dogs.

Truth be told, though, AMD's plans aren't quite as sinister as all that. We should start by acknowledging that AMD is actually in quite the bind here, and there's not a simple, easy, obvious answer to the dilemma. Much as we'd like to think folks could be educated to understand why clock speeds aren't a reliable indicator of performance, the fact is that they've been taught to believe in MHz as such an indicator for the past 20 years. AMD's success on this front could only be partial at best.

Given the constraints, AMD's solution is actually fairly savvy, even if it is imperfect. And there's a little more to it than the initial rumors suggested.

The numbers
AMD will indeed be offering the Athlon XP in a range of models, including the current flagship, the Athlon XP 1800+. These model numbers will be assigned to different frequency processors like so:

The "plus" after each number supposedly denotes that the Athlon XP is actually faster than competing chips at 1.8GHz. But don't take my word for it. For the best example of how AMD's new marketing scheme works, take a long, hard gander at this sample retail PC price tag:

This price tag tells it all. Note a couple of things. First, the CPU model number is prominently displayed, but the clock speed isn't entirely hidden, either. Instead, there's an asterisk next to "QuantiSpeed architecture" that points to the fine print, where the clock speed is listed. This scheme is actually quite similar to what some of our readers suggested in the great debate over this issue. It's a small step, but an important one, to disclose the actual clock rate of the processor. Doing so avoids the appearance of deception.

Second, there's this whole "QuantiSpeed" name. This name is the latest in a time-honored tradition of questionable names assigned to technologies by marketing departments. Such names usually signify a technology or a collection of features that may or may not be related to one another—or to reality. These names are often chosen to evoke something specific that a marketer wants to communicate about a product. In this case, QuantiSpeed is the name AMD has given to the Palomino architecture, and it's clearly intended to evoke, in a sense, that its time is more valuable—that it delivers more work per clock.

Before the Intel fanboys start hooting, they should pause to consider Intel's own use of loopy marketing terms. NetBurst, anyone? That one is chosen to correspond with Intel's whole "makes the Internet go faster" line, which is a load of bunk. Other Pentium 4 marketing terms? How about these: Advanced transfer cache, Hyper pipelined technology, Rapid execution engine, and Advanced dynamic execution.

No serious chip geek is going to look under the hood and think, "Oh, it's got a Rapid Execution Engine," but the terms do serve an important marketing purpose—much as I hate to admit it.

That sample price tag speaks volumes about where AMD is going with this thing. I think the few simple twists they've added are quite clever. And there's one more twist.