AMD readies mother of all chip launches

Chip maker tipped to debut 10 new chips in June, possibly on the same day, led by its 'Thunderbird' and 'Spitfire' processors
Written by John G.Spooner, Contributor

Advanced Micro Devices is planning what could be its largest processor launch ever.

The company could launch 10 new processors as soon as June 5, sources said. AMD has said it will launch its new Duron processor, code-named Spitfire, along with its forthcoming Athlon chip, code-named Thunderbird, in June. It now appears the chips will debut on the same day.

The new chips target both the high-end and low-cost PC markets. The Thunderbird chips will raise the bar for top-end performance, whereas the Duron will offer AMD's first Athlon-based processor as a lower-cost alternative.

Sources said the Duron chip will begin shipping at 600MHz, 650MHz and 700MHz in early June -- possibly as soon June 5. A 750MHz version of the chip will come later, sources said. The Thunderbird chip, meanwhile, will be available in 50MHz increments, ranging from 700MHz to 1GHz (1,000MHz), sources said. The chips, which retain AMD's current 200MHz system bus, are currently being evaluated by PC makers.

Thunderbird's most important feature is its 256KB Level 2 cache. The cache, which will be integrated into the chip itself, increases the chip's overall performance by making data meant for processing accessible at much higher speeds than the non-integrated 512KB cache of the current Athlon chip.

Besides offering greater overall performance, Thunderbird chips should cost less than the current shipping version of Athlon due to packaging changes.

As previously reported, the Thunderbird chip will ship in two packages. It will ship first to PC makers in the current package, known as Slot A, but will transition within a few weeks to a new Socket A. Moving to the socket is possible now due to the integration of the Level 2 cache. It will also allow AMD to reduce the cost of the Thunderbird chips compared with the current Athlon.

Duron, announced April 27, represents the first low-cost Athlon-based chip for the "value PC" market, where PC prices range from $600 to $1,200 (£404 to £808). Duron pricing closely matches that of Intel's Celeron chip, which generally ranges from $70 to $180.

Duron will likely receive a modest 64KB on-die Level 2 cache -- and that, analysts said, is an unorthodox move. However, Athlon has 128KB of Level 1 cache, which, when combined with the Level 2 cache, gives it a total of 192KB of integrated cache. That's plenty for Duron to be competitive with Intel's Celeron, performance-wise, analysts said. "With that combination of cache and the higher bus speed, plus the fact that the Duron is using the Athlon architecture, I would imagine that it's going to be pretty performance-competitive with the Celeron," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at market research firm Mercury Research.

Intel's Celeron chip, on the other hand, has 128KB of Level 2 cache and a slower 66MHz system bus. The system bus is the data pipeline between the processor and supporting chip set, giving access to memory and other system components. The performance of Duron may motivate Intel to move the Celeron chip to a 100MHz bus soon in order to keep up, analysts said.

Analysts predict the performance boost from Thunderbird's integrated cache will allow high-speed Athlons to match or beat Intel's Pentium III chip in performance, depending on the benchmarks used.

Thunderbird also marks an important milestone for AMD, as the company will begin shipping versions of the chip based on its 0.18-micron copper process from its Dresden, Germany, processor fabrication plant. However, AMD will also ship aluminum versions of the chip from its Austin, Texas, Fab 25 plant. (The reference to 0.18 refers to how far apart the transistors are spaced. The closer they are together, the more transistors AMD can fit into a chip, therefore increasing performance.)

The Dresden chips will use copper interconnects, which are the tiny strands of metal that connect transistors inside the chip. While AMD now uses aluminum to do this job, AMD's chip designers have determined that using copper in its place can allow for higher clock speeds in the future.

Using copper in Thunderbird chips should not be noticeable to consumers right away. The performance of a copper chip vs. an aluminium one at a given clock speed will be the same, AMD officials said, but the company is looking for benefits from copper further down the line, when it will allow the company to push Athlon to higher clock speeds.

At this point, the Dresden location is more important for AMD as a second manufacturing plant to add manufacturing capacity. The company says it is nearly sold out of Athlon manufacturing capacity for the second quarter.

AMD will join IBM and Motorola in producing copper chips; IBM has shipped more than 2 million PowerPC chips using its copper technology. Intel however, remains the last holdout on copper. The company says it will move to copper next year when it transitions to a 0.13-micron process.

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