AMD: Megahertz isn't everything

On the eve of Intel's 2-GHz Pentium 4 launch Monday, the folks at AMD are eager to make one point: Megahertz isn't everything.

In an industry where speed is a measure of performance, that approach is a tough sell (remember the race to 1 GHz?). AMD's claim is especially notable because the company is facing a frequency deficit of 600 MHz (AMD's fastest Athlon runs at 1.4 GHz). But AMD officials say savvy buyers are accepting their message.

"Our combination of Athlon and DDR technology outperforms their combination of P4 and Rambus technology," says Tim Wright, director of desktop marketing at AMD. "Megahertz is only part of the equation."

The other part of that equation is the amount of work the processor does per clock cycle, Wright says, and the Athlon simply gets more work done per cycle than the P4. In fact, he says, Intel's Pentium III actually accomplishes more per clock cycle than the P4. "Intel has to pull the megahertz lever to get more performance out of the P4," he says.

That's not just AMD marketing, it's a fact, according to Kevin Krewell, senior analyst with MicroDesign Resources.

"The Athlon core is designed to do more work per clock cycle than the P4," he says. As a result, Athlon processors can keep pace with P4s running at faster clock speeds.

Intel's response: "With the launch of our 2-GHz P4 Monday, we expect to widen our existing lead in megahertz and performance over our nearest competitor," says George Alfs, spokesperson.

Slower, but better show

Despite Intel's take on P4 performance, PCWorld.com tests substantiate both AMD and Krewell's statements. Recent WorldBench 2000 tests comparing 1.7-GHz P4-based systems to 1.3-GHz Athlon-based systems showed the two in a tight race for bragging rights.

In those tests, a 1.7-GHz P4 Gateway system with 128MB of RDRAM squeaks past a comparable HP Pavilion PC with a 1.3-GHz Athlon and 128MB of DDR memory. As in previous testing, the Athlon PC excelled at the floating-point-intensive AutoCAD test, while the P4 system outperformed in video encoding.

Intel is quick to point out that P4 systems often best Athlon PCs in specific tasks that benchmarks don't always cover, specifically multimedia chores. Intel also claims that users will see significant improvements in applications tailored to the P4 chip.

MicroDesign's Krewell says another advantage to the P4 is its faster front-side bus speed, which could play a larger factor as the processor continues to ramp up to higher speeds. The P4 supports a 400-MHz front-side bus, while the Athlon uses a 266-MHz front-side bus. However, the DDR memory that uses the AMD bus remains significantly less expensive than the RDRAM memory that works with the 400-MHz P4 bus, he notes.

Same boat as Apple

After years of promoting the premise that megahertz matters, AMD faces a significant challenge in changing people's minds, Krewell says. It's a situation Apple has been dealing with for years, he notes.

The difference is that Apple has long had a built-in customer base that was willing to believe Apple's disclaimers about what it calls the "megahertz myth." PC buyers, however, have long associated more speed with more performance, he says.

"AMD has an uphill battle," he says. "The company recognizes the problem, and they are working to solve it," he says.

AMD's Wright says the company is working to change perceptions by educating the people who sell PCs to consumers. The company is also relying on independent benchmarks to tell the whole story. Enthusiasts that follow such benchmarks will pass along that knowledge to more casual PC buyers, he says.

"We all have somebody we ask for advice," he says.

More Athlons to come

In the meantime, AMD isn't standing still. Scheduled for launch later this year is an improved version of the desktop Athlon, code-named Palomino. AMD has already released a mobile version dubbed Athlon 4 and a multiple-processor version named Athlon MP. Early tests of the mobile version show performance has been strong, although Intel's new 1.13-GHz Pentium III-M beat it in our tests.

Krewell expects the new chip to launch at speeds greater than 1.5 MHz, and to include several performance-enhancing improvements. Those tweaks will likely include new data instructions called 3DNow Professional that support graphics-intensive applications, a data pre-fetch feature that improves performance by preloading some instructions from RAM, and better power management.

Meanwhile, the 1.4-GHz Athlon is left to fend for itself against Intel's upcoming 2-GHz P4. AMD's Wright admits the 2-GHz mark holds some sentimental value, but says it's more about marketing than performance. "It's a focus on frequency for the sake of frequency," he says.

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Tom Mainelli

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