AMD Thunderbird is go

AMD's Thunderbird, which debuts in the US next week, features an integrated level-2 memory cache, a design trick that buys more performance at no cost to the customer.

Systems powered by the Thunderbird, a catchy code name that AMD is changing to "Athlon with performance-enhancing cache memory," will initially be in short supply.

Both AMD and Intel have taken to launching chips weeks before PC makers are ready to build systems with the new chips in significant quantities.

Nevertheless, the new systems should be worth the wait. Initial PC World tests on a new 800-MHz Athlon system suggest that the new chips indeed offer more processing power for your money. Our exclusive tests of business performance show that an enhanced Athlon-based system running at 800 MHz is comparable to a 1-GHz system powered by the original Athlon. And the 800-MHz Thunderbird system was just as fast as the 800-MHz Pentium III-based systems we've tested in the past. As more systems ship with the new Athlons, tests will become more conclusive.

What makes Thunderbird fly? It's the on-chip L2 cache. The original Athlon chips offered 512KB of L2 cache - but cache off the chip, meaning it ran at just one-half to one-third of the chip's clock speed, depending on the particular processor. The new Athlon chip's 256KB of L2 cache is integrated into the processor, so the memory runs at full speed. Intel's Pentium III CPU has had on-die, full-speed L2 cache since last October. Now AMD is catching up.

CyberMax and Gateway are offering systems with the new Athlons immediately. Compaq will announce in coming weeks Presario systems that use the new chips. Hewlett-Packard will support the processors in Pavilion systems this summer.

AMD is launching the new processor in six speeds: 750 MHz, 800 MHz, 850 MHz, 900 MHz, 950 MHz, and 1 GHz. Initial quantities are limited but will increase quickly, says Michael Steele, director of AMD's commercial segment marketing.

Athlon CPU pricing will be unchanged, Steele says. So, for example, an 800-MHz system with the new CPU should cost about the same as one with the old version.

The on-die L2 cache will enable even larger performance gains down the road, says Steele. The company expects to ship an Athlon running faster than 1 GHz before the end of the year.

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Tom Mainelli

PC World
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