AMD pushes Athlon to 1.8 GHz

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. is surging forward again in the CPU races, unveiling this week the 1.8-GHz Athlon XP 2200+, which will soon appear in PCs from several vendors. The first system tests find the best Athlon XP machines match high-end Intel Pentium 4 PCs in office productivity, though P4 systems continue to solidify their lead in audio and video tasks.

Nevertheless, AMD Athlon XP-based machines still win the value trophy--they usually cost US$200 to $300 less than similar P4 models. Watch for new systems from ABS Computer Technologies Inc., Falcon Northwest Computer Systems Inc., Polywell Computers Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., and others--many of which PC World has already benchmarked.

The CPU race is quick and ever-changing; in May, Intel Corp.'s new 2.53-GHz P4 with a 533-MHz frontside bus edged past a PC with AMD's Athlon XP 2100+ chip in PC WorldBench tests. For the most part, the newest Athlon closes the small gap.

Tale of Tests

PC World's tests show that in one regard, decisions between top AMD and Intel-based systems has become easier. It's almost all about money, not speed. Consider the case of the two top-of-the-line, near-identically configured Polywell models we tested: The $2150 Poly 883VF-2200, with an Athlon XP 2200+ chip, and the $2480 Poly 850E-2530, with a 2.53-GHz P4 chip.

The P4-based Poly scored 122 on PC WorldBench 4 tests, just a smidgen faster than the 883VF-2200's score of 120. The $2099 ABS Awesome 3300 system just edged out the entire field with a score of 123, a performance indistinguishable from that of the P4 we tested.

The scores of the two other Athlon XP 2200+ units were in the same tight cluster: The $3260 HP Presario 8000Z checked in at 122 and the $3485 Falcon Northwest Mach V Athlon XP 2200+ at 120. (All systems ran Windows XP Home, used an NVidia GeForce4 graphics card with 128MB of RAM, and had at least 512MB of main memory.)Results on multimedia and graphics tests, however, were more of mixed bag. As we've come to expect from P4 systems, the Polywell 850E-2530 noticeably outperformed the four Athlon PCs on audio and video encoding tests, and did particularly well on the Musicmatch test, where its score was 10 to 15 percent better than the competition. It also bested all but one of the Athlon machines in Unreal game play.

Yet the ABS system won the AutoCAD test by 25 seconds over the P4 Poly, which finished last. That's notable since this test is the only one where the P4's 533-MHz frontside bus has previously distinguished itself in the past. All four Athlon systems excelled on the two Photoshop tests, saving 6 to 10 seconds compared to the Polywell P4 unit.

Cache Questions

The major change in the Athlon XP 2200+ compared with older Athlon chips is that AMD manufactures it using a .13 micron process instead of the older .18 micron process. The new process produces chips that are more power-efficient and thus run cooler, making way for faster successors without Texas-size heat sinks. AMD can also produce more chips from one silicon wafer, saving money.

When Intel moved to the .13 manufacturing process earlier this year, it also raised the level 2 cache in its Pentium 4 chips from 256KB to 512KB. AMD, however, has chosen to make its new Athlon XPs with the same 256KB of L2 cache as the older chips. This decision helps explain why the Athlon XP 2200+ systems tested are in rough parity with the tested P4 machine, rather than decisively ahead. (Intel opted to release the recent 1.7-GHz Celeron chip with only 128KB L2 cache in order to hit a low price point. However, PC World's tests found the first system a mediocre performer.)AMD says a future Athlon XP chip, scheduled to ship by this fall, will have a 512KB L2 cache. This schedule lets the company focus on its eighth generation of chips, slated to debut late this year, says an AMD spokesperson.

Catch the Bus

But cache isn't the only issue. The new Athlon XP uses the same 266-MHz frontside bus as its predecessors; that's half the speed of the 533-MHz bus in the latest P4 models, and analysts say it hurts system performance.

"AMD has not increased the processor bus speed to keep pace with the newer DDR-333 memory," says Kevin Krewell, senior analyst at MicroDesign Resources. "A faster bus would help performance, as [would] a larger cache. AMD appears to be trying to save manufacturing costs at the expense of performance."

Indeed, the ABS, Falcon Northwest, and Polywell Athlon-based units all have the new 333-MHz DDR SDRAM. Consistent with Krewell's comment, the DDR-333 memory did not seem to help these systems break out in the tests--not even the Falcon PC, loaded with an eye-popping 1GB. (The Presario used the older 266-MHz DDR, while the Poly 850E-2530 used PC 800 RDRAM.)Game PlanIntel plans to ship faster Pentium 4 chips by year's end, and AMD has several interesting moves in store.

As mentioned, AMD plans to ship an Athlon XP chip with 512KB L2 cache--code-named "Barton"--by fall 2002. AMD says it will not increase the frontside bus speed for Barton, so it's still unclear whether this chip will have the power to pull ahead of the P4. AMD says it does not want to make PC vendors deal with new chip sets and motherboards to support a faster bus for Barton, given that AMD's brand new chip architecture will follow close behind it.

That eighth-generation family of chips, code-named Hammer, will debut in late 2002. The first in the bunch, a desktop chip code-named ClawHammer, will use the Athlon brand name with an extension. With a direct interface to main memory, the ClawHammer chip may really zip through applications.

Once Hammer chips arrive, the Athlon XPs will replace AMD Duron chips for bargain-level PCs. AMD will stop producing the Duron line before Hammer arrives, but some Duron systems will remain on the market in 2003.

Buying Strategy

For now, buying decisions should be straightforward. Athlon XP 2200+ PCs like the tested ABS and Polywell machines save you a few hundred dollars over P4-based peers and provide plenty of power for almost anything, from standard office productivity to computing-intensive applications.

The Falcon Northwest unit, stuffed with memory and every goody a power addict could covet--from 400-watt Klipsch Promedia 4.1 speakers to a Creative Technology Sound Blaster Audigy card to two RAID-configured 40GB hard drives--may be overkill for most people, but you can scale down the package. For example, a configuration with 512 MB of memory, less fancy speakers, and without the RAID storage setup runs about $2800, over $600 less than the PC we tested. Similarly, the loaded $3260 HP Presario unit costs $2860 with a 17-inch monitor instead of the 16.8-inch flat panel display our evaluation unit had.

If you're an Intel fan, however, you need no longer fret that Athlon XP systems leave top P4 machines in the dust. In fact, the P4 retains its edge on some multimedia tasks.

As for whether AMD will again put more distance between itself and Intel in the speed contest, we'll have to wait and see. It's too soon to guess who'll be atop the leaderboard by year's end.

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