AMD released the Athlon XP/2600+ to market earlier than expected. This was urgently necessary, as the Intel architecture has been constantly improving, with faster PC1066 Rambus memory and a quicker 533MHz frontside bus. What’s interesting is that AMD is clearly able to remain competitive. The Athlon design is already seen as cost-driven by critics: AMD continued to manufacture the CPU on a 0.18-micron process for a long time, only introducing the 0.13-micron Athlon XP/220+ (with a clock frequency of 1.8GHz) in the middle of June. Amazingly, the Athlon XP can still beat the 2.53GHz Pentium 4 on a range of benchmarks with a processor clocked at 2.13GHz (the new 2600+ model).
Despite the surprising clock speed increase in the Athlon XP/2600+, it remains to be seen whether AMD’s Athlon XP will be able to keep up with the Pentium 4, which has already moved on to 2.8GHz. Increasing the clock speed is not AMD's only headache: constant improvements in the Intel architecture with optimised drivers and chipset updates should ensure that the Pentium 4 continues to improve in head-to-head comparisons.
Then there’s the issue of software optimisation. When the Pentium 4 was introduced there was hardly any optimised software for it, but the situation is now completely different. For nearly every type of application – be it video or MP3 creation, or professional 3D modelling -- there is at least one program that is optimised for the Pentium 4. The improvements are particularly impressive in the professional 3D-CAD/CAM area. With the new version 5 of 3D Studio Max, the Pentium 4 has further caught up. With Lightwave 7b, the P4 optimisation succeeds perfectly. Here, Intel’s chip is clearly faster than the Athlon XP. With older applications, however, the Athlon XP generally remains faster.
AMD has also noticed this trend, and will introduce an Athlon XP with a larger 512KB Level 2 cache (codename Barton) and faster 333MHz frontside bus in the spring. With these architectural improvements, the Athlon XP should be more competitive.
In addition to their very good performance, the new AMD processors are well priced. However, Intel has recently dropped the price of the 2.53GHz Pentium 4 from $637 to $249. This might cause AMD more problems than any marginal performance advantage of Intel's CPU. It's time for the Hammer.
|CPU prices (as of 21 August 2002)|
|Athlon XP/2600+ (2.13GHz)
|Athlon XP/2400+ (2GHz)
|Athlon XP/2200+ (1.8GHz)
|Pentium 4 (2.53GHz)