AMD, Intel up the speed ante on desktops

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Intel raised the speed limit for desktop PCs on Monday, with Intel using smaller circuits on its Pentium 4 processor to increase its clock speed advantage over AMD.

Both companies launched their chips on the eve of the giant Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, freeing PC makers such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Compaq Computer Corp. to show off new systems at the show based on the faster chips.

Intel launched a 2.2GHz Pentium 4 that uses its new Northwood chip core, which is manufactured using a 0.13-micron process, compared to previous versions of the chip which used the 0.18-micron process. The numbers refer to dimensions of circuits etched onto the surface of the chips.

Along with a smaller die size, Intel also doubled the amount of Level 2 cache on its new Pentium 4 processor to 512K bytes, up from 256K bytes on previous versions.

The new Intel chip runs at 1.5 volts, compared to 1.7 volts for previous versions, Intel said. Dropping the voltage consumes less power and produces less heat, which should allow the company to increase the clock speed further with future releases. The new processor will appear in systems from vendors starting Monday, including HP, Dell Computer Corp. and eMachines Inc.

AMD launched its latest high-end processor on Monday as well, the Athlon XP 2000+, which has a clock speed of 1.67GHz and comes with 256K bytes of L2 cache. Initially, systems will be available only from Compaq and New York-based Systemax Inc., although others, including HP, are expected to follow, AMD said in a statement.

The Athlon XP 2000+ was built using a 0.18-micron manufacturing process; AMD expects to move its chips to the 0.13 process in March, the company said.

Also Monday, Intel officially launched its first 845 chipset supporting DDR (double data rate) memory, adding to its support of SDRAM (synchronous dynamic RAM) and RDRAM (Rambus DRAM). Motherboard vendors showed the chipset at the Comdex trade show in November, but Intel held off on a formal launch until Monday.

DDR SDRAM support for the Pentium 4 has been a source of friction between Intel and Taiwan-based Via Technologies Inc. In September, Intel filed lawsuits in the U.S. and elsewhere alleging that Via's P4X266 chip set, which allows the Pentium 4 to work with DDR SDRAM, violates Intel technology patents. Via has denied the allegations.

Intel denied speculation that a contract with RDRAM developer Rambus Inc. had prevented it from offering a DDR chipset sooner. "You want to make sure there is a wide variety of manufacturers" offering DDR memory chips, said Louis Burns, vice president and general manager of Intel's desktop platforms group, during a briefing with reporters last week. "We're very convinced of it now," he said.

The Athlon XP 2000+ is priced at US$339, while Intel's 2.2GHz Pentium 4 sells for $562. Intel also launched a 0.13-micron version of its 2GHz chip with 512K bytes of cache, priced at $364. All prices are based on 1,000-unit quantities, a standard volume of chip sales.

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