AMD - The Future
To 1GHz, and beyond!
Until just a year ago gamers mostly avoided AMD's CPUs, as it was widespread knowledge that their all-important "Floating Point Unit" was slower than the ones on Intel's Pentium and Pentium II processors at equivalent clock speeds.
Today AMD's Athlon is heralded as the fastest gaming CPU money can buy, an impressive turn-around by any standards. AMD have gone from underdog to front runner in less than twelve months, and now it is Intel that seems to be struggling to keep up.
So, what comes next?
Where Am I?
The PC hardware market is moving very fast at the moment, and because games typically take about 18 months to develop, conferences which bring together hardware manufacturers and game designers are important. The futuristic hardware being shown to the developers today will be considered entry level by the time some of their games ship!
AMD were just one of many hardware companies talking about their latest products at the recent ETC 2000 conference in Sheffield, and as one of the few journalists there to report on the event I got a ring side view of their presentation...
Mike Goddard, a member of the developer relations team at AMD, started off by summarising what the company has already achieved - almost a million Athlon processors sold in the last three months of 1999, with clock speeds now reaching 800MHz.
In fact, just a few days after ETC 2000 a new 850Mhz Athlon was released. All of the new Athlons are now being made using a 0.18 micron process, making them smaller, cooler, and less power hungry than the first wave of 0.25 micron Athlons.
So that's where AMD are today. What about the future?
Thunderbirds Are Go!
Just two days before the ETC 2000 presentation, AMD had demonstrated a 1.1GHz Athlon at ISSCC. This is the first of a new generation of Athlon, code-named "Thunderbird", which will replace the traditional aluminium interconnects with copper.
Thunderbird will also add an integrated full speed Level 2 cache. What all that jargon means is that there is now another chunk of memory built into the processor itself and running at the chip's full clock speed, whereas current Athlon chips have a Level 2 cache that runs at only 1/2 or 2/5 of the clock speed.
The upshot of all this is that Thunderbird CPUs will run faster than current Athlons, even at the same clock speed - F.A.B!
And if that doesn't tickle your fancy, there are also two more variations of the Athlon under development, code-named "Spitfire" and "Mustang". Spitfire will be a cheaper version of the Thunderbird with less memory in the Level 2 cache, whereas Mustang will be an enhanced Thunderbird with up to 2Mb of Level 2 cache and a more compact design.
One of the biggest problems for the Athlon at the moment is that the motherboards for it, using AMD's own AMD-750 chipset, are beginning to show their age.
Only 100MHz memory can be used, and AGP 2x is the latest graphics card standard supported. Memory bandwidth (or the lack thereof) produces some of the biggest bottlenecks in modern computers, and so the current Athlon motherboard designs are obviously a cause for concern.
Enter Via's Apollo KX133 chipset, which adds support for 133MHz memory and the latest AGP 4x standard, bringing the Athlon right up to date. The first motherboards based on this new chipset are just becoming available, and if you can get one to go with your Athlon it will be well worth the effort.
Meanwhile AMD themselves are working on the next step - a motherboard capable of using DDR memory! Recent experience with the GeForce graphics card from NVIDIA showed that moving to faster DDR memory produced an impressive improvement in performance, simply by increasing the amount of memory bandwidth available without having to change anything else on the card.
AMD hope to have motherboards using DDR memory in production before the end of the year, and this should provide another boost in performance for their processors, although at the moment DDR memory (which effectively runs at 200 or 266MHz) is rather expensive compared to the more conventional 100 and 133MHz SDRAM.
Another change on the cards for later this year is a move from the current "Slot A" design to a new "Socket A" - basically a change in the way the processors are packaged. This will start to happen towards the end of the summer, with the Spitfire only appearing in Socket format, and the Thunderbird and Mustang available in both Slot and Socket forms.
AMD's Athlon seemed to catch Intel by surprise when it first appeared last year, and Intel's response has been slow and clumsy, plagued by chronic processor shortages and high prices compared to the Athlon.
Even though Intel's latest CPUs are actually the equal of Athlons at equivalent clock speeds now, it's so hard and expensive to get hold of the high end Pentium III processors that the Athlon is the clear winner at the moment.
Besides, every time Intel announces a new processor, AMD just releases one that runs faster. And whereas Intel chips that were announced months ago are only just starting to materialise in any great numbers, AMD's processors are generally appearing on time and in quantity.
AMD aren't about to be caught sleeping though, and with new motherboards supporting faster memory, processors reaching 1GHz and beyond, and a new generation of Athlons with full speed Level 2 cache, the future is certainly looking bright for AMD.
Bruno Bonnell's ETC 2000 speech