AMD: Mid-year high-speed chip debut

The code name is Thunderbird and AMD hopes it will make life for rival Intel utterly miserable

Advanced Micro Devices is getting ready to turn the key on Thunderbird, a chip that will offer consumers increased computing performance without needing to pay a large price premium. The chip maker has begun sending samples of Thunderbird, which is the code name for its next-generation Athlon desktop processor, to PC makers. The chip features an improved processor core and is expected to debut in the second half of this year.

A company spokesman confirmed the general timetable but would not comment on specific timing, clock speeds, performance or pricing for the new line.

However, sources suggest the wraps may come off of Thunderbird as early as late May, saying it may debut in between three and five clock speeds that range as high as 1GHz. Also, the processor may make it past the vaunted 1GHz mark as the year goes on. AMD has already demonstrated the chip running at 1.1GHz.

Thunderbird samples are coming from AMD's recently completed Fab 30 manufacturing plant in Dresden, Germany.

"From everything we've seen all systems are go," said Mike Feibus, principal analyst at Mercury Research, which tracks the semiconductor market.

Tossing down the gauntlet

Thunderbird is also expected to match speeds with the forthcoming Willamette from rival Intel. Willamette has been demonstrated running at speeds up to 1.5GHz.

"It doesn't look like meeting that will be a problem," Feibus said.

Aside from clock speed, Thunderbird's most important feature will be a new integrated level 2 cache. Sources speculate the chip will receive 256KB of cache. The current Athlon utilises 512KB of off-chip level 2 cache. Moving the cache on-chip will improve performance of the chip by allowing the cache to run at full processor speed. This will offer a big performance boost for the higher clock speed chips, as the cache speed is divided by 2.5 at speeds between 700MHz and 900MHz and by three at 950MHz and 1000MHz, according to an AMD spokesman.

Moving level 2 cache on chip, in general, yields a performance boost of at least 10 percent, as it allows data to be moved into and out of the chip more quickly.

Thunderbird will also utilise copper metal interconnects, which are thin metal strands used to connect transistors inside the chip. Copper is used in Thunderbird because of its more favorable properties, versus the aluminum metal used by most PC processors, the current generation Athlon and Intel's Pentium III. Copper will show benefits once Thunderbird reaches higher clock speeds later this year, AMD officials have said. Intel, however, has no plans to move its chips to copper until next year.

The one potential issue for the new Thunderbird chip may be in getting the PC infrastructure players lined up behind the chip at launch. Thunderbird, and a forthcoming value chip from AMD -- code-named Spitfire -- will both use a new packaging called Socket A, although Thunderbird will also be available in AMD's current Slot A packaging. There may be some initial shortages of socketed motherboards, according to industry experts, including Feibus.

Rallying the infrastructure players, who include motherboard and chipset makers, can be difficult. However, getting them behind Thunderbird and Spitfire is "a much smaller challenge than the original (Athlon) infrastructure was to set up last fall," Feibus said. "At this point, it's a coordination of people that are bought in."

AMD is expected to demonstrate the Thunderbird chip, along with its Spitfire processor, aimed at low-cost desktop PCs, at the upcoming Microsoft Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, otherwise known as WinHec, in late April.

As reported by ZDNet, Spitfire, for value PCs, is expected to debut at up to four clock speeds. It will ship at around the same time as Thunderbird.

Intel is suffering from what we might call Microsoft Syndrome, the symptoms are rampant and unnecessary paranoia, read the news comment at AnchorDesk UK with Peter Jackson.

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