AMD was kind enough to let us borrow one of its latest CPUs, and they run rings around everything except for Intel's top-of-the-line Pentium 4 2.8GHz. The 333MHz FSB-toting Athlon XP 2700+ (2.17GHz) and 2800+ (2.25GHz) almost equal Intel's top chip in pretty much every test we threw at them, but Intel still edges it on everything except the latest motherboards. Indeed, our American cousins were ordered to review the chips on NVIDIA's immature nForce2 platform, which produces results across the board in the likes of Quake III Arena, Serious Sam Second Encounter, Unreal Tournament 2003 and Commache 4 that top Intel's. Stick an XP2800+ on a KT400-based motherboard though and the story is quite different, slipping below Intel's standard by a few notches. On a general PC use level, the latest Athlons pip Intel to the post - again, particularly so in the company of an nForce2.
Marginal differences in benchmark scores apart though, the XP2700+ and XP2800+ chips are veritable beasts. Boot times on our Windows XP Pro-based test machines were south of 15 seconds, which is the fastest we've seen, and there seems to be a bit of headroom to play around with too. Our air-cooled XP2700+ chip ran as high as 2.3GHz using Corsair PC2700 rated memory and an ABIT KX7-333-RAID motherboard, without getting anywhere near as hot as previous Athlons. The key is in revision B of the latest core design, aptly known as Thoroughbred, built on a 0.13-micron production process.
Compatibility is bound to be an issue, and if you plan to pick up a new Athlon this year or next, you might want to think about a new motherboard to boot, not to mention some new PC2700 DDR memory. And you'll need to be selective about your motherboard - the Epox 8K3A+ board AMD provided behaved adequately, and our ABIT KX7-333-RAID wised up to the 2700+ after a BIOS update, but on the whole this is new technology, even if it's the same old chip form factor.
We've yet to see proper pricing for the XP2700+ and its big brother, but the XP2200+ retails for £130 including VAT, so hopefully it will fall somewhere between this mark and the insanity of Intel's £440 Pentium 4 2.8GHz. As we understand it, the bulk buy prices for 1,000 units in the US will be $349 for the XP2700+ and $379 for the XP2800+, but how this will translate to their actual European retail and OEM prices is harder to call than a Ferrari double-finish at the US Grand Prix. What's more annoying is that this is a paper launch - we've no idea if these chips will arrive before the end of the year, and with the XP2200+ the best thing to make it to market so far, one has to question the wisdom of this constant speed-ramping in the absence of tangible product.
Ignoring issues of availability and backwards compatibility though, the Athlon XP2700+ and XP2800+ are exceptionally fast processors, although they are nowhere near the definitive argument against an Intel CPU. Once the chips are on the market, they will be no better or worse a choice than a Pentium 4 at 2.8GHz - it will mostly likely all come down to pricing, and our inkling is that AMD will beat Intel in that regard, as they almost always have. With great framerates spectacular operating system performance a certainty, these new processors score very highly with us. It's just a shame that you can't buy them... yet.