AMD renews cheap chip attack

Duron will take Athlon technology into the cheap PC zone - with a few tweaks along the way

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) is set to renew its focus on the "value" PC market with next month's release of Duron, a repackaging of its core Athlon chip technology with a few tricks to make it cheaper to manufacture.

In recent months AMD has focused its energies on preparing several chips for the mainstream and high-end segments of the PC market, leaving what some industry observers call a hole in its value product line. That is because the K6-2 processor maxed out at 550MHz weeks ago, stalling further advances until Duron's launch, according to research firm MicroDesign Resources. Intel's Celeron value chip runs at clock speeds up to 600MHz.

Duron will represent a renewed launch into the value space for AMD, bringing Athlon core architecture into the market for cheap PCs. These usually cost under $1000 (about £600), with the microchips priced from $70 to $180.

One of the price-saving manoeuvres will be a switch from Slot A packaging to the new Socket A package. (To compare the old and new chip architectures, click here.)

Socket A is smaller and less costly to manufacture, and it is made possible by the integration of the Level 2 cache onto the chip die, which reduces the overall size of the chip. (The L1 and L2 caches are used to store data and instructions frequently used by the system.)

All of AMD's next-generation chips are to migrate to Socket A, but Duron will only be available in the newer packaging.

Compare the new and older chip architectures -- click here.

The new package requires new chipsets from both AMD and Via Technologies, another manufacturer making AMD-compatible chipsets. Via will replace its KX-133 chipset with the KZ-133, designed for Socket A.

The switchover to the new packaging has already caused some confusion, as Via's KX-133 will apparently not be compatible with Slot A versions of Thunderbird. This is not expected to affect AMD's OEM customers, however, as they use AMD's chipsets, which will work with the new chip.

As another cost-saving measure, AMD will give Duron a surprisingly small L2 cache. Because Duron is based on the Athlon core, it will keep Athlon's large, 128K L1 cache, compared to Celeron's 64K L1.

To keep the size of the die small, however, AMD will give Duron a 64K L2 cache -- even though it is highly unusual for a chip's Level 2 cache to be smaller than its L1. Celeron, for example, will sport a 128K L2 compared to its 32K L1.

However, AMD has engineered around any potential technical cache problems, according to analysts, and at 192K of total on-chip cache it offers more than Celeron's 160K. Since it is also based on the Athlon, a newer chip design than the Coppermine design Intel uses for Celeron, the chip should compare favourably with Intel's low-cost chips, experts say.

"Duron will allow AMD to compete very effectively with Intel's Celeron in both price and performance," wrote MicroDesign Resources' Kevin Krewell in a recent report.

AMD originally focused its efforts on the low-cost PC range, and briefly held a market lead over Intel in the segment, before the launch of Celeron. But since last autumn's launch of Athlon, the successor to the K6 line, AMD has been focusing on taking over market share in the mainstream PC market and preparing Athlon spinoffs for the mobile, value and performance markets.

Those chips include the desktop chip code-named Thunderbird, due out in the next few weeks; the performance chip code named Mustang, out in the late second half; and the mobile version of Mustang, code named Corvette, also due in the late second half. These will be followed by the Sledgehammer chip for servers and workstations next year.

Thunderbird, which will likely use the Athlon brand, could launch at the same time as Duron, according to sources. Duron will begin shipping at 600MHz, 650MHz and 700MHz, with a 750MHz chip to come later. Thunderbird will be available in 50MHz increments from 700MHz to 1GHz, according to sources.

Despite this latest value chip, however, AMD still faces a potentially serious threat from Intel, in the form of Timna. Timna goes a step beyond Celeron, integrating even more components -- such as graphics and memory -- into the chip itself: the strategy means Timna will be super-cheap to manufacture, while still delivering good performance. The chip is aimed at the sub-$600 PC market.

ZDNet's John Spooner contributed to this report.

There is a mad, suicidal race to the gigahertz barrier according to Guy Kewney of AnchorDesk UK, go and read the news comment on the AMD/Intel race.

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