AMD's evergreen Athlon lives on as a bridge to Zen chips

AMD hopes its new Athlon processor will bring low-end gaming momentum to its upcoming Zen-based chips

In the early 2000s, AMD's Athlon chips rocked the PC market with innovative features like 64-bit processing capabilities, and Intel had to scramble to catch up.

Today, the Athlon brand remains alive and well, though AMD's scrappy underdog reputation has taken a hit as it has lost market share to Intel. AMD wants to rekindle its PC glory days with upcoming Zen chips later this year, and hopes a new Athlon chip will hold the interest of budget-conscious gamers until then.

AMD's new Athlon X4 880K chip is for gaming desktops under $500. The unlocked quad-core chip runs at a frequency of 4.2GHz and can be overclocked, a feature appreciated by gamers.

Priced at $95, the new Athlon is among the first chips to come with a custom-made heatsink that AMD calls the Wraith Cooler. Chips mostly don't have coolers, and the overall package provides more bang-for-the-buck than Intel's competitive dual-core offerings, AMD claims.

Over the last two years, AMD has de-emphasized low-cost PC chips in an effort to return to profitability. But gamers are a core audience, so AMD is re-entering the low-cost gaming desktop market with the new chip.

AMD later this year is expected to make a splash in the gamer market with top-line and low-end Zen chips based on a new architecture. The new Athlon chip, meanwhile, could create some momentum and position the Zen gaming chips for success.

Athlon carries a lot of brand equity and buyers know what they are getting with it, said Don Woligroski, global marketing manager for desktop CPUs at AMD.

"It is one of the brands we have that people understand and rely on," Woligroski said. "It carries a positive sentiment."

Athlon was AMD's top chip brand during the company's heyday in the early 2000s, and  gamers and enthusiasts loved it for overclocking and other features, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

That same love for Athlon chips may carry over to today, especially in emerging markets like Asia and Latin America, where brand identity lingers longer, McCarron said.

Some of AMD's best chip innovations came with Athlon. Much like Intel's Pentium, Athlon is a brand still respected in emerging markets, McCarron said.

Athlon 64 in 2003 was the first line of 64-bit chips for PCs. Athlon was turned into a brand for entry-level PCs around 2007, which is when AMD's fortunes in the PC market started sagging. AMD at the time replaced Athlon with new chip brands for mid- and high-end PCs.

The new Athlon X4 880K is based on the older Godavari architecture, which allows quad-core configurations and overclocking. The gaming chip won't match AMD's top-line FX chips on performance, but can be paired with a mid-range GPU to play 4K games at 60 frames per second, Woligroski said.

"We may not be the fastest, but we can be extremely capable for the dollar," Woligroski said.

The company opted not to use the latest Excavator architecture for the new Athlon chip, as it provides less flexibility for overclocking and the use of multiple cores --  features that address gamer needs, Woligroski said.

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