March 6, 2000 8:00 AM PST

AMD makes move to 1-GHz chip

AMD trumped Intel today by releasing the 1-GHz Athlon processor, currently the fastest chip on the market, although Intel will follow with its own 1-GHz chip on Wednesday.

Reaching the speed threshold, long a landmark since chip power has increased exponentially in recent years, may be more than symbolic. PC makers backing the 1-GHz Athlon say they have plenty of chips and will begin taking orders this week. Computers with 1-GHz Pentium IIIs will come out later this week, but they will likely be in very limited supply. Some PC makers won't launch these computers for a while.

AMD and Intel have been locked in a race to get the first PC processor running at 1 GHz, or "one gig," out the door first. Two weeks ago, chips running at this speed weren't expected until the middle of the year. Intel, however, recently moved up the release of its 1-GHz Pentium III. Intel's release has so far been planned for Wednesday, sources said. AMD responded by moving up its 1-GHz announcement.

Along with its 1-GHz Athlon, AMD introduced 900-MHz and 950-MHz Athlon processors. AMD priced the 1-GHz Athlon at $1,299 in units of 1,000 and the 900-MHz and 950-MHz at $899 and $999, respectively.

Compaq Computer and Gateway today unveiled 1-GHz Athlon consumer PCs, while Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Micron are backing the one-gig Pentium III. Low-end Athlon systems with monitors start below $2,500, and comparable Pentium III PCs start at $3,000 and above. Higher-end models could approach $4,500, sources said.

Although both companies are announcing new chips this week, the bigger question will be which company can produce them in volume. Intel has been suffering from shortages of high-end Pentium IIIs since October. While Intel executives and analysts say the situation has improved, consumers and dealers say the fastest Pentium IIIs can still be tough to find. Computer makers have also complained about tight supplies of the fastest processors, especially the 800-MHz chip, Intel's fastest.

AMD has had to endure similar, but less severe, shortages. The company's latest 850-MHz chip is extremely difficult to find, sources said. Still, PC makers hope to exploit the current supply advantage. Mark Vena, Compaq's director of consumer desktop marketing, said his company has plenty of chips and will begin taking orders Thursday. The delay will allow the Houston-based PC maker to sync direct sales with 9,000 retail kiosks.

"We know there has been a lot of attention given to the gigahertz race between AMD and Intel, but from our belief, not only must you be able to announce a microprocessor, you have to be able to ship it," Vena said. "In the configure-to-order space, you can't announce products you can't deliver."

According to Kevin Krewell, senior analyst with MicroDesign Resources: "Anyone can make an announcement. The question is who is going to have the first units for sale from a major (computer maker)."

Although Dell, IBM and Micron will ship 1-GHz Pentium III consumer models, it might not happen for a while. Dell, for example, may not ship a one-gig model until middle or late spring because of supply problems.

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Nathan Brookwood, among other analysts, has pointed out that AMD is able to boost the clock speed of Athlon fairly easily. The chip came out only last year, and AMD has yet to take full advantage of the new architecture's potential.

"I think they have the headroom (for 1 GHz)," he said. "That should be well within their capabilities almost at a whim."

By contrast, the fundamental architecture of the Pentium III largely dates back to the Pentium Pro, which came out in the mid-'90s. Because it is an older design, Intel has already wrung much of the potential out of the chip. Intel will come out with a new chip, code-named Willamette, toward the middle of the year. Willamette will likely debut at around 1.4 GHz, sources have said, and will provide Intel with a new blank slate. Willamette will only come out in limited quantities this year, however.

The prices for 1-GHz computers will come at a premium compared to consumer PCs with processors running at lower clock speeds, such as the 733-MHz Coppermine. Because most systems will cost at least 25 percent more than other PCs, many computer makers are planning on lower initial shipping volumes.

"They are high-end systems with cutting-edge technology," said a Dell representative. "You have to look at it like a special-edition Porsche. You don't drive it off the lot for a test drive, and they're limited editions, so you don't see low price points."

PC makers will largely target gamers with these high-end PCs, many of which will come with high-powered 4X AGP graphics cards, 128MB or more of memory, and high-end sound cards. The majority of manufacturers supporting the 1-GHz Pentium III also will include Rambus memory.

 

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