Chip wars: Is there life after 1GHz?

Summary:The need for clock speed isn't abating. Now that AMD's won the drag race to 1,000MHz, the marathon -- pushing into gigahertz-plus realms -- begins

The gigahertz race may be over, but don't count on the PC industry stopping just there.

According to PC makers, the computing public's hunger for greater performance remains unabated -- and that means 1GHz, or 1,000MHz, processors will, sooner rather than later, be surpassed by even more powerful chips.

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) beat archrival Intel to the 1,000MHz mark on Monday when it announced it is shipping a 1GHz Athlon processor for desktops. "Everybody wants performance for a couple of reasons," said Peter Ashkin, chief technology officer at Gateway.

One such reason is "future proofing", he said. "They want something faster to give them a little more headroom (greater longevity than a lower clock speed PC)."

High-end applications are another reason for the push beyond 1GHz, Ashkin said. Those applications, usually graphics-intensive applications such as games, call for as much processor performance as possible, he said. And users are willing to pay extra for it. Gateway is already taking orders for its 1GHz Athlon-based Select system, which retails at $2,999 (£1,899).

"I don't see anyone saying enough is enough. I think the trend will continue. We'll have 1.1GHz and 1.2GHz, and we'll keep going that way," Ashkin said.

Even as PCs based on its 1GHz Athlon chip began rolling down assembly lines at Gateway -- Compaq will follow suit later this week -- AMD was hard at work on its next-generation Athlon offering.

AMD is bringing up a new manufacturing facility -- Fab 30 in Dresden, Germany, which will be the home base for its next-generation, gigahertz-plus Athlon chip.

That Athlon, based on AMD's Thunderbird processor core, will scale well past 1GHz. The core's most important characteristics, aside from clock speed, are performance enhancements in the form of integrated Level 2 cache and the ability to utilise copper metal interconnects. Integrated cache, which runs at the full processor clock rate, can provide performance increases upward of 10 percent. Copper interconnects, which connect transistors inside a processor, serve to help increase clock speed performance over the aluminium interconnects used today by AMD and other chip makers.

According to sources, it's expected that Athlons using the Thunderbird core will be available at clock speeds of 1GHz or higher. But Thunderbird-core Athlons will also offer a number of lower clock speed grades, similar to Monday's three-chip launch by AMD, sources say. It will begin shipping next quarter, according to AMD officials.

Aside from Thunderbird, AMD has two other processor cores in the works for the second half of 2000 -- Spitfire, which will result in low-cost chips for value PCs, and Mustang, from which AMD will derive future high-performance desktop chips and its first mobile Athlon. Mustang, among other things, will have larger levels of integrated cache in order to improve performance.

AMD is also working on a number of new chipsets for Athlon. They include one, called AMD 760, that raises bus speeds from 200MHz to 266MHz, and supports faster Double Data Rate Synchronous Dynamic RAM. A system bus provides the data pipeline between a processor and internal components, such as system memory. The bus used by Athlon, the Alpha EV6 from Digital Equipment, can scale as high as 400MHz.

While clock frequencies and cache sizes are important, consumers will want to know what kind of real-world performance improvements they can expect from their gigahertz-plus PCs.

At gigahertz-plus levels, Steve Lapinksi, director of marketing for AMD Computational Products said, "applications are going to take on a new light." They will, in other words, run faster, but also gain new properties.

As Athlon's process technology -- the techniques used to manufacture the chip -- is refined, AMD sees the potential for single-chip multiprocessing, where two Athlon processors are placed on the same chip. This creates a multiprocessing desktop PC, with the ability to run several applications simultaneously. Consumers could utilise it (and its Internet connection) for several functions at the same time. How about banking and gaming at the same time?

"While you're at home, you could be doing your banking in real time, while listening to the radio (via the Web) or watching TV," Lapinski said. These multiprocessing capabilities are a possibility for a forthcoming 64-bit AMD chip, codenamed Sledgehammer.

Unlike at AMD's offices, it was a quiet on Monday, newswise, at Intel's headquarters. That is because Intel has yet to announce its 1GHz Pentium III chip.

Sources say, however, that the company will announce its 1GHz Pentium III on Wednesday. The announcement should be accompanied by supporting announcements by PC makers, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Dell Computer, all of which will offer 1GHz Pentium III-based PCs.

Intel, for its part, is also working on a gigahertz-plus chip. This chip, known by the code name Willamette, is due in the second half of the year. Intel recently demonstrated the chip running at 1.5GHz. The chip, which will begin at gigahertz-plus speeds, will also offer integrated cache, a 400MHz system bus and dual-Rambus RDRAM (Rambus direct RAM) memory channels, among other features. It will also include a new multimedia instruction set, similar to the Pentium III's Streaming SIMD Extensions. The instruction set is tuned to help speed video and speech recognition processing, among other things.

Intel has yet to disclose details, such as cache sizes, packaging and power requirements. However, it is likely the chip will be manufactured using Intel's 0.18-micron process and a socketed packaging scheme similar to the one currently in use for itsPentium III.

It looks as if the Willamette chip will go head-to-head with AMD's Mustang.

Will the intense focus on clock speed and bringing the fastest chips to market first backfire on AMD and Intel? Some analysts believe it could, making it more difficult for the companies, and PC makers, to market their gigahertz-plus processors.

With AMD jumping from 850MHz to 1GHz, will the public accept a 1.05GHz chip or a 1.1GHz processor next? Or will a jump to a 1.5GHz chip be required to maintain interest? asked Mike Feibus, principal analyst at Mercury Research. Intel will make an even greater leap -- from 800MHz to 1GHz.

"Both companies have sort of tossed their roadmaps to get there," he said. "We've put all of this weight on 1,000MHz. How do you turn around and sell 1,100MHz? What is the least significant digit now that we've reached 1GHz?"

Compaq, for one, expects it may see "some slowdown in terms of clock speeds (on the part of chip makers)," said Mark Vena, director of consumer desktop marketing.

But PC sales? "It's like getting to the moon. No-one watched Apollo 14. The other thresholds aren't as important," Vena added.

"It's a question that will be answered in the next couple of months," Feibus said.

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom and read what others have to say.

Now that the gigahertz barrier has been broken, what's next? Will anyone care when we pass 2GHz? Michael Caton thinks not. Go and read the news comment at AnchorDesk UK.

For full coverage, see 1GHz: The whole story.

Topics: Hardware

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