How AMD is playing the XP name game

Companies are grabbing onto Microsoft's XP coattails, say John Morris and Josh Taylor. AMD's newly christened Athlon XP 1800 processor debuts this week. It offers great performance, but could AMD confuse us any more if it tried?

COMMENTARY-- XP this. XP that. Please, no more. The next version of Windows isn't even officially available until the end of this month, and we're already sick of those two letters. Though it is reportedly just a coincidence, the latest to hop on the XP bandwagon is AMD, which is rebranding the newest version of its Athlon processor, to be announced today, in an increasingly desperate bid to keep pace with archrival Intel.

Though it has a clock speed of 1.5GHz, AMD's new top-of-the-line desktop processor is dubbed the Athlon XP 1800. We can only assume that this naming scheme is meant to bolster AMD's claims that its 1.5GHz processor delivers performance similar to Pentium 4 chips starting at clock speeds of 1.8GHz or faster.

That ought to really clear things up for consumers. Hmm, should I get that PC with a 1.8GHz P4 and 256MB of PC800 RDRAM--or one with an Athlon XP 1800 actually running at 1.5GHz with 256MB of PC2100 DDR SDRAM? Got all that? Never mind the letters we're almost certain to get from readers wondering whether they need an Athlon XP to run Windows XP, Windows XP to run Office XP, and so on.

To be fair, there's more to the Athlon XP than just a bump in clock speed. Code-named Palomino, it is based on the same technology used in the mobile Athlon 4 processors (a name that also earned AMD some derision, since it seemed to skip right over 2 and 3), currently available at speeds of 850MHz to 1.1GHz.

Marketing gimmicks aside, the fact remains that on most applications, systems using AMD's slower desktop chips can deliver performance of PCs with faster P4 processors, as demonstrated by ZDNet Reviews' first hands-on tests of Athlon XP systems.

In fact, the Falcon Northwest Mach V was the fastest desktop that we've tested to date, with eye-popping scores across the board. But before you get too excited, you need to take this with a grain of salt because the system is overclocked (from 1.533GHz to 1.587GHz), has 512MB of system memory, and is the first ZDNet has tested with the new Nvidia GeForce3 Ti accelerator--all of which gives it an upper hand.

Even the two systems with more mainstream specs (such as a 1.5GHz Athlon XP, 256MB DDR memory, and a 64MB GeForce3 accelerator), the ABS Performance XP and Polywell Athlon 1.53 proved AMD's point. When compared to a Dell Dimension 8100 with a 1.7GHz P4 and similar specs, both Athlon XP systems scored about 5 percent better on business productivity and content-creation applications (SysMark 2001), despite having a slower clock speed. All three systems, as well as the Mach V, were running Windows XP.

So perhaps AMD is onto something here. Clearly, the company needs to do something. Despite having a compelling product, AMD has lost a couple of key U.S. customers, Gateway and IBM, and a price war with Intel has left it bleeding red ink. But the fact remains that many consumers choose PCs based primarily on clock speed, and it's going to take more than some creative and confusing naming schemes to change that behavior.

Help AMD get its story straight. What should the company do to encourage consumers to look beyond clock speed? (Extra points for creativity.) Tell us in TalkBack.


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