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AMD's Athlon XP 2600+ processor

Back in the saddle again

THE ATHLON XP HAD a great run. It was vying for the title of "fastest x86 processor" for most of its life, from its introduction right up until the time Intel introduced Pentium 4 processors running on a 533MHz bus at speeds up to 2.53GHz. Once Intel dropped those processors on an unsuspecting world, the x86 performance crown was squarely back in Intel's camp, and even AMD's die-shrunk "Thoroughbred" revision of the Athlon XP wasn't able to keep up. Not only that, but T-bred was slow to market. AMD struggled to transition to its new 0.13-micron manufacturing process, and once the die-shrunk T-bred arrived, it would barely overclock for us—not a good sign for additional clock speed headroom in the Athlon XP design. Throw in the fact that AMD's aging Socket A platform only supported a 266MHz bus, and the writing was on the wall. The Pentium 4 design was ramping up like Evel Knievel, and only the forthcoming "Hammer" series of processors could save AMD from becoming a second-class citizen in the processor world once again.

Such was our thinking until recently, when AMD quietly shipped us an Athlon XP 2600+ processor for review. This baby runs at 2.13GHz, a full 333MHz faster than the previous top-of-the-line model, the 2200+. It seems AMD has done a little tweaking to the T-bred, and suddenly, they've found a little extra speed. There will be a 2400+ version of the Athlon XP that runs at an even 2GHz, as well.

The XP 2600+ looks like any other T-bred, but...

So did the AMD processor gnomes just turn the dial to "more magic" or what? AMD says they've added another metal layer and some additional capacitors to the T-bred in order to provide a more favorable electrical environment. Not only that, but they have modified certain pathways in the chip in order to help it run better at high clock speeds. At least, I think that's what happened. AMD's official line is: "AMD always takes an active approach to rebalance and improve speed paths throughout the processor core design."

So after a quick colonic, the Athlon XP is more regular than ever.

Now the question is: Can higher clock speeds alone help the Athlon XP compete with the Pentium 4, or will the Athlon's relatively slow 266MHz front-side bus hold it back? We've already explored the benefits of a 333MHz front-side bus on the Athlon XP, and honestly, we were a little underwhelmed. Maybe a good clock speed boost is all this puppy needs.

Of course, we're about to find out. We've got a revamped suite of processor tests—nearly every app we use has a new version, and we've added a few new wrinkles, as well. Naturally, we're comparing the Athlon XP 2600+ against its predecessors and against its toughest competition from Intel. Read on to see if AMD really is back in the game.