AMD: Understanding performance key to future PC sales

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) will attempt to bring its message to the masses as it highlights an initiative to educate consumer PC buyers on Athlon XP processor performance in digital media and gaming applications. But leading consumers through a maze of technical benchmarks, clock speed debates and architectural comparisons might leave the average PC buyer more confused than ever, according to analysts.

In a wide-ranging interview Wednesday, AMD officials said the company needs to target consumers looking to upgrade their PCs this holiday season, and explain to them why AMD's performance rating system provides computer buyers with an accurate projection of how their new PCs will perform, according to Mark Bode, division marketing manager for AMD.

The company is calling this effort its True Performance Initiative and while it has been going on for about a year, AMD is emphasizing it now with a coast-to-coast U.S. tour, hoping to debunk what it calls "the Megahertz Myth."

Most consumers have been conditioned to believe that megahertz is the ultimate measure of PC performance, when many analysts agree that clock speed is only one measure of performance, AMD said. These consumers are driving PC purchases right now, as they look at other devices like digital video cameras and realize they need a better-performing PC to use their cameras effectively, Bode said.

"We want to ask consumers, 'What are you going to use your PC to do?'" rather than bombarding naive purchasers with specifications and statistics, he said.

"The business customer has always been savvy, and has always bought based on overall performance after reviewing benchmarks or demoing systems for their environments. Consumers are less-educated when it comes to the level of performance they need to do the things they need or want to do," Bode said.

Intel Corp. and AMD are pitted against each other by analysts and hardware enthusiasts when it comes to clock speed and its relative importance to processor performance. Intel's highest performing chips run at higher clock speeds than AMD's, but AMD says its chips do more work per clock cycle, resulting in a more efficient chip.

Intel labels its chips with their clock speed, but points to a number of different features when positioning its processors, said an Intel spokesman.

"Intel markets its products on a range of points, including quality, reliability, availability and high performance. Megahertz is something we do disclose since it is a technical fact that designers need for interfacing with other components. Megahertz is not a measure of performance -- industry standard benchmarks are," said George Alfs, an Intel spokesman.

Benchmarks are a controversial issue in the processor world. The main idea behind benchmarks is to provide a quantitative analysis of processor performance while running various applications. Benchmarks exist for games, office productivity and content creation applications and a host of other software.

AMD recently joined the Business Application Performance Corporation (BAPCo), after charging that the group's latest set of Sysmark benchmarks produced results that favored Intel's Pentium 4 processors and did not reflect real-world performance. But, according to analysts, one person's real-world performance is another person's misleading metric.

"It's not whether anybody can claim to be the fastest, it's that everybody can. You can contrive a benchmark to produce just about anything," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst for Mercury Research Inc. in Cave Creek, Arizona, when interviewed about AMD's charges earlier this year.

On certain benchmarks, Athlon XP processors outperform Pentium 4 chips. On others, the outcome is reversed.

Consumers "should at least know what the most demanding things you do are, and find a benchmark that reflects that level of usage," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst for marketing research firm Insight 64 in Saratoga, California. Various hardware enthusiast Web sites publish the results of recognized benchmarks from BAPCo, the Embedded Microprocessor Benchmarking Consortium and others.

Both Intel and AMD say less technically adept consumers searching for processor performance comparisons should look to third party Web sites, PC magazines and trusted friends or relatives who know more about PCs. Both companies also say consumers should determine what applications are most important to them now and what they envision themselves needing in the future.

AMD said it will work with other industry partners to develop a common rating system, but that effort will take some time.

"The odds that Intel and AMD could agree on any kind of industry-wide situation is somewhere between slim and none," Brookwood said. "The reality is the computer industry has never been able to settle on benchmarks for just about any segment of the market."

AMD currently uses performance ratings to label its processors, but those ratings compare performance only among its own chips, and don't provide a comparison to competitors' processors, Bode said. The company hopes it can reach a consensus for an industry standard method of measuring performance, and will talk to vendors and consumers about the issue over the coming months.

"We have to make sure the ratings ultimately make sense to the consumer," Bode said.

The official definition of AMD's performance ratings is that the current ratings represent the performance of today's chips compared to its original Athlon core, known as Thunderbird. The Athlon XP processor based on the Palomino core was introduced in October of 2001 and current Athlon XP processors unveiled at CeBIT in March of this year use the .13-micron Thoroughbred core.

However, many in the industry feel that AMD sets its processor ratings in accordance with similar performing Intel processors. For instance, when AMD launched its 2800+ processor in early October, Intel's highest performing processor on the market was the 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor.

"Isn't it an interesting coincidence that AMD said the 2800+ just happens to outperform the 2.8GHz Pentium 4?" Brookwood said.

Intel has no plans to change the way it labels its processors, Alfs said. The Santa Clara, California, company's market share measured by processor shipments has hovered around 80 percent of the total market this year, according to data from Mercury Research.

"Intel is perfectly content to keep the status quo. If you're way ahead, you're not going to change anything," Brookwood said.

In other AMD news offered during the interview, Bode said AMD remains on track to deliver another Athlon XP processor with the "Barton" core, which uses a 512K byte Level 2 cache for faster access to previously used instruction sets, in the first quarter of 2003. Its 64-bit Hammer chips for both servers and desktops are also scheduled to be released in the first half of 2003, he said.

The desktop version, known as Clawhammer, will ship to manufacturers in the first quarter of 2003, and should be available in systems by the second quarter of that year. The ship date for the server-side Opteron processor will happen some time in the first half of 2003, Bode said.

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Tom Krazit

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