The state of the Athlon processor
It has been just over four months since AMD originally launched its 1.4GHz Athlon processor to the masses. In the technology world, four months is a long time.
Over the course of the past four months, Intel has released three new clock speeds for its Pentium 4 processor and slashed processor prices nearly as many times. As a result, AMD has been forced to counter with price cuts of their own, reducing margins on their entire line of CPUs. In the case of the 1.4GHz Athlon alone, the price has dropped nearly 50% since it was launched in June.
Typically processor manufacturers make up for these price cuts by introducing newer, faster parts to take their place. AMD hasn't had this luxury, and as a result they have recently announced a net loss of between $90 and $110 million for this quarter. Clearly Q3 wasn't the best of times for AMD.
While AMD has been stuck at 1.4GHz, the company has also relied solely on its Thunderbird core for its Athlon line of processors. While Thunderbird has been an enormous success for the company since it was launched last summer, at higher clock speeds Thunderbird processors generate a significant amount of heat. AMD had originally planned to address this issue at the beginning of this year with its successor to Thunderbird, codenamed Palomino, but persistent delays in the product have pushed it back throughout the first half of this year.
The megahertz myth
While the situation we've described sounds bad, another nagging issue remains: Intel's perceived clock speed advantage. With Pentium 4, Intel has focused on enabling breakthrough clock speeds at the sacrifice of the amount of work performed per clock cycle. As a result, Intel's Pentium 4 is able to scale to higher clock frequencies easily -- Intel has been introducing new Pentium 4 processors in 100MHz increments. In the eyes of the mainstream public, Intel's Pentium 4 processor has consistently maintained a clock speed advantage since its introduction. However, the clock speed of the processor is only one piece of the puzzle that determines the total performance of the processor. The amount of work performed per clock (frequently referred to as IPC, for instructions per clock cycle) is the other key piece.
AMD's Athlon processor blends a balanced combination of IPC and clock speed into one package while the Pentium 4 focuses squarely on high clock rates. To refer to a car analogy, think of a vehicle like the Honda S2000, which achieves its peak horsepower and torque at high RPMs. This vehicle is akin to the Pentium 4. In comparison, a similar roadster such as the Porsche Boxster S which achieves its peak figures at a lower RPM level (i.e. the Athlon). Each solution has its own way of achieving its performance (those important 0-60 times!) and neither implementation is "right" or "wrong" -- it's just something you have to realize when product shopping. To the mainstream consumer of course, this isn't known. Since the Pentium 4 runs at a higher clock speed it's perceived as being faster even though in many cases, it isn't.
With today's Athlon XP 1800+ release, AMD hopes to resolve of all three of these issues. We'll show you how…