AMD, Intel prepare next generation chips

Spitfire, Thunderbird, Timna, Willamette to bring greater performance, lower cost PCs
Written by Matthew Broersma on

AMD and Intel are set to unveil the official brand names of their next-generation processors, as they prepare to introduce a new wave of technology destined to replace the chips at the heart of most PCs today.

The official brand names, which will start to appear in the next two weeks, should cast light on Intel and AMD's business strategies in a changing processor market.

Todays' top-end desktop processors, Intel's Pentium III and AMD's Athlon, will be joined by an Intel chip code-named Willamette and AMD's code-named Thunderbird. Willamette is a streamlined, pumped-up version of the 32-bit processor architecture standard today, while Thunderbird is based on Athlon technology, but includes a number of performance enhancements. Both chips will push beyond the 1GHz barrier, without a huge price increase.

On the budget end -- a market that has seen explosive growth in the last couple of years -- Intel will introduce the successor to its Celeron in the form of Timna. AMD's ageing K6 line will be joined by two processors: Mustang for laptop computers, and Spitfire for low-cost desktop PCs. The K6-2+ will continue to be used in laptops through the end of the year, but will be phased out on the desktop market in favour of Mustang. Timna, Mustang and Spitfire are codenames.

Athlon was AMD's first serious push outside the realm of the "value PC", but it has yet to make significant inroads into the valuable corporate market.

The company hopes Thunderbird, Spitfire and Mustang will change all that. But AMD may very well decide to continue to leverage the Athlon brand, in much the same way Intel has done with successive revamps of the Pentium. Industry observers speculated that Thunderbird, for example, could have a name such as Athlon Performance.

AMD spokesman Richard Baker said branding has a surprisingly powerful effect on who will and won't buy a processor. He said IT managers were reluctant to buy brands like K6 and Celeron, even though they know the underlying technology is similar to Athlon and Pentium III, simply because the cheaper models are perceived as consumer products.

"It just goes to show that even these people, who are supposed to be really hard-core techies, are just as influenced by the media and advertising and branding as the rest of us," he said.

Thunderbird is expected to be demonstrated at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) at the end of April; its brand name will likely be announced by then.

While AMD is making a point of leveraging its Athlon technology -- which the spin-meisters insist is a generation ahead of Pentium -- Intel is looking to open up an entirely new market with Timna, making the introduction of a new brand a possibility.

The low-cost processor, which integrates the CPU (central processing unit), memory and graphics controller onto a single "system on a chip", could open the door to ultra-cheap Windows-based systems -- a step beyond the sub-£600 PCs on the market today. Some experts have estimated Timna-based systems could capture an astonishing 60 to 80 percent of the total desktop market, according to analyst Sami Pohjolainen of Dataquest.

"Timna is an attempt at creating a new kind of category in the PC industry," Pohjolainen said. "It's the first time Intel is going away from the megahertz battle into products that are highly integrated with their chipsets. That means very low cost, highly integrated devices that are easy to deploy and cost-effective to manufacture.

"If they do the rollout right, there's the potential that this might capture 60 to 80 percent of the total desktop market," he added. "Mainstream desktop technlogy doesn't require something like the Pentium III processor... this is suitable for most standard desktops."

Intel will also attempt to open up a new market -- this time at the high end -- with the launch of Itanium, the brand for its first 64-bit processor. Intel will begin shipping samples for Itanium at midyear and systems -- which will require entirely new software -- are due in the second half of this year.

Intel said it has introduced the Itanium name partly to signal what it hopes will be the dawn of a new era in high-end computing. "This is a completely new architecture. Before, we had the (Pentium-based) desktop PC segment, the Xeon range in the server/workstation arena, and now Itanium is moving into the new area of high-performance server/workstation solutions," said Intel spokesman Graham Palmer.

"Some of this area was touched by Xeon before, but with Itanium it really is a new market segment," he said.

64-bit technology vastly speeds up the rate at which data can be processed by allowing the chip to manipulate data in 64-bit chunks rather than the 32-bit chunks handled by today's Pentium or Athlon parts.

If AMD's new processor can outperform Intel's then a fuzzy name will be a nice bit of icing on the cake -- if they can't, I really doubt that warm and cuddly branding will make a bit of difference. Go with Guy Kewney to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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