July 25, 2002 4:00 AM PDT
AMD fielding 64 bits for PCs
As Intel accelerates the launch date of its 3GHz Pentium 4 chip, arch rival AMD continues to build the foundation for "ClawHammer." The 64-bit Athlon processor is expected to come out early next year, giving desktop PCs a performance similar to that of workstations used in research labs at DaimlerChrysler or NASA.
To make sure ClawHammer arrives on solid footing, AMD is working with a long list of partners who will build that hardware and software that can take advantage of such a chip. The company has already sent tens of PCs fitted with the upcoming chip to game developers and multimedia software creators, said John Crank, a senior branding associate for the Athlon. This is part of Operation Rolling Thunder, AMD's campaign to introduce the chip, he said.
AMD is, so far, the only major chipmaker to announce plans for a 64-bit chip for desktops.
"Just because it's there, we think people are going to use it," said Mark de Frere, AMD's Athlon brand manager.
Because of ClawHammer's 64-bit architecture--which gives the processor the ability to process twice as much data per clock cycle as current Athlon chips and allows consumer desktops to offer significantly larger amounts of memory than they do now--AMD asserts that the chip will usher in a new class of high-performance games and other complex applications such as video editing and voice recognition.
There's one catch, though. The average PC user probably doesn't need 64 bits just yet.
One of the crucial benefits of 64-bit chips is that they can manage more than 4GB of memory. But top-of-the-line PCs have only just recently topped 1GB, and few industry watchers believe consumers will need more than 4GB of memory in their systems for at least a few years. Fitted with current 32-bit chips, 4GB is the limit of what PCs can handle.
"You're just now seeing people put over 1GB (of RAM) in their machines," said Chris Hecker, who develops games for Oakland, Calif.-based Definition Six. "It's not likely that someone is going to write a game in the near future that pushes the (4GB) envelope. But clearly it's going to happen eventually."
AMD agrees to some extent that it will take time to establish a base of 64-bit customers. However, the company points out, demand for greater performance and more memory always increases, despite what experts predict, especially in market segments like PC gaming.
Is there a need?
The move to 64 bits has proven necessary for high-end workstations and servers, which are used to maintain huge databases or to create industrial designs. Intel, IBM, Sun Microsystems all make 64-bit chips for workstations and servers, but those chips require completely different hardware and software than that found on consumer PCs.
Next year, AMD will also release the 64-bit Opteron, a sister chip to ClawHammer, for servers.
Intel maintains that 64 bits will be unnecessary in desktop PCs for some time.
But AMD says 64 bits can benefit consumers, making games more realistic with more lifelike characters and settings. Games can take advantage of the ability to move more data by tapping the ClawHammer's 64-bit-wide registers, which can handle twice as much data at once as current 32-bit chips like the Athlon XP.
More intense games will also undoubtedly require more memory, another reason AMD says 64 bits will sell. Games could also be written to run faster by loading completely into memory, then automatically expanding data caches--stores which hold often-used information--to fill the available memory space.
AMD isn't focused solely on games, though. The company asserts that peer-to-peer computing, new operating systems with more intense graphical interfaces, and applications such as voice recognition and video editing will also boost the need for performance, which can be delivered by the 64-bit chip, and will increase minimum requirements for memory in PCs.
Most new PCs come with 256MB or 512MB of RAM right now, but memory capacities are constantly increasing. Every year, memory manufacturers increase RAM chips' capacity to store data. By virtue of technology improvement alone, AMD asserts, PCs with 4GB or more of memory will begin arriving in 2004.
"We think that the average Joe is going to hit that wall tomorrow," de Frere said of the current 4GB limit. "We think (4GB) will come sooner than people think."
The ClawHammer will be able to run current 32-bit software, as well as new 64-bit applications, switching between them on the fly. Such an approach extends the X86 architecture, the basis of both Intel and AMD processors.
The ClawHammer will also offer clock speeds of 2GHz or faster, along with performance enhancements such as a built-in memory controller. This will give the chip a 20 to 25 percent performance gain over the current Athlon XP, Crank said.
Whether customers will buy into 64-bit PCs will be hotly debated in coming months, but AMD believes now is the time to lay the groundwork.
"Sixty-four bits helps. It's an added capability for the processor and there's a bit of future proofing...as 64-bit OSes and applications can run on the chip later," said Dean McCarron, analyst with Mercury Research. "Sixty-four-bit plus performance equals a more compelling product. The more compelling it is, the better the pricing."
AMD needs another hit product to continue the successes of its Athlon XP.
Athlon XP helped AMD boost its unit sales and average selling prices, for a while. But a second-quarter slowdown in retail PC sales hurt the company, analysts say. The new chip could provide a similar boost for the company and allow it to counter the rapid rise in clock speed of rival Intel's Pentium 4, which will hit 3GHz by the end of the year.
Industry watchers say that consumers will more likely adopt the ClawHammer for the performance bump it offers over current Athlon XP rather than for its 64-bit capabilities. In other words, they will buy it to use as a 32-bit chip.
AMD may not be able to determine if the move to 64 bits is the right one for years, until it moves on to an entirely new generation of chips after the ClawHammer. But the chipmaker steadfastly asserts that certain segments of the PC market will adopt ClawHammer just because it is a 64-bit chip. And, the company predicts, they will do so almost immediately.
Not everyone agrees with AMD. Market researcher Dataquest has a more conservative outlook on PC memory trends, related to price pressure.
Dataquest predicts that average PCs will contain just 1GB of memory in 2005, with high-end PCs shipping with 2GB or 2.5GB. PCs with 4GB will be available by then but will be rare, said Andrew Norwood, an analyst with Dataquest.
"We're going to go into a DRAM shortage at the end of this year," he said. "A lack of reduction in prices over the next 18 months will hold back the DRAM content in PCs."
Despite these challenges, work related to the ClawHammer progresses.
At the same time, swaying PC makers may be just as important as working with Microsoft or educating consumers about the benefits of 64 bits.
Design teams at PC manufacturers will need to begin addressing 4GB memory barrier fairly soon, analysts say. They will have to choose whether to move to 64-bit chips or use chips tweaked in other ways to address more than 4GB of memory.
Despite the behind-the-scenes work and the hype, the ClawHammer's success will likely come as much from consumers' old habits as it does from cool new games and other applications.
"Look at consumer processor purchases," McCarron said. Consumers "see the bigger number and they go for it."