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Behind The Lines: AMD's Athlon 64

AMD launched its new Athlon64 desktop CPU this week to the delight of PC gaming enthusiasts, digital media and cinematography -- three sectors that can immediately take advantage of 64-bit processing.

But despite the fanfare, analysts say the Athlon 64 is not a magic potion that will revolutionize the desktop. Still, most agree that AMD's chief rival Intel now has itself in a corner for the first time and must come up with its own 64-bit desktop alternative.

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based semiconductor maker was very glib about its rollout, which included onstage appearances from Microsoft , NVIDIA and online gaming producer Epic, which is debuting a 64-bit version of its Unreal Tournament. Hewlett-Packard is also showing support for the new Athlon 64 but was noticeably absent from the launch. Fujitsu, Fujitsu-Siemens and Packard Bell are also on board

While critics could not refute that mainstream desktop computer processing is entering the 64-bit age, many felt a sense of "chicken and egg" syndrome even with AMD's backwards compatibility -- allowing the processor to run both 64- and 32-bit software applications natively.

Deutsche Bank Securities analyst Ben Lynch points to lack of major vendor support.

"The large OEM support is lackluster," Lynch said in a briefing to investors. "Outside of three major ones, a host of about 60 white box manufacturers will lead the charge for their respective niche segments."

Lynch says Microsoft's announcement of a beta version of its Windows XP 64-bit edition with a formal launch expected in the first quarter of 2004 is a huge boost, calling a 64-bit Windows OS "critical for AMD to meet the demand of its targeted Athlon64 users." But Deutsche Bank says AMD could have had a longer head start.

"AMD announced that all major chipset and motherboard vendors currently have products available (or planned) for Athlon64. Anticipating demand in their markets, we believe AMD's partners jumped on board early in the process," he said.

Even AMD CEO Hector Ruiz confided in the press that the company could have done a better job of launching the new Athlon, which suffered from months of delays.

Previously known as "Clawhammer," the new desktop family is being marketed to go head-to-head with Intel's Pentium chips and builds on many of the same features AMD released earlier this year with its server and workstation Opteron chip.

Kevin Krewell, General Manager of Reed Business and analyst for In-Stat/MDR, says even with Microsoft onboard, it may be somewhat confusing for AMD to market the new chips as 64-bit just now.

"What you are buying is a really good 32-bit processor that provides the platform for the future," Krewell told internetnews.com. "These are very excellent processors that have the ability to support 64-bit applications but it would be misleading selling it openly as a 64-bit system until Microsoft or other driver support for the peripherals."

Industry analyst Rob Enderle takes a different approach, noting the benefits of AMD's inbred "backwards compatibility".

"It's a protection against obsolescence because vendors do not have to completely change processor hardware when 64-bit applications become more the norm," he said.

Even Intel is acknowledging that AMD may be up to something with 64-bit as the company's upcoming 90-nanometer process Pentium code-named Prescott has 64-bit functionality in it. But the company says it continues to focus on 32-bit for the desktop relying more on Hyper-Threading and peripheral technologies such as PCI Express to produce faster.

"We have not announced plans for a 64-bit processor at this time," Intel spokesperson George Alfs told internetnews.com. "Right now for 64-bit, there is limited compilers and limited tools available. We feel that the benefits of Hyper-Threading and the 13 new instructions of Prescott will bring more advancements into 32-bit chip."

But Enderle said the No. 1 chipmaker still has to produce a comparable processor architecture relatively soon to remain competitive, which may be difficult if Intel continues to focus purely on its Itanium processors

Such would be the case with Intel's upcoming Yamhill technology. The set of 64-bit extensions to the 32-bit x86 instruction set is not expected to debut in Pentiums until 2005.

"Yamhill will pull the rug out from Itanium," he said. "Once you can get the 64-bit technology in a Pentium, the higher priced Itanium seems outdated."

Editor's note: Internetnews.com sister site, Sharky Extreme has an indepth review of the http://www.sharkyextreme.com/hardware/cpu/article.php/3082211 >AMD Athlon FX-51 here.



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