As earlier reported, the name is presumably a way to better market the chip against Intel's Pentium 4. However, AMD says the name is steeped in Athlon history and is the fourth version of the chip.
"This is the fourth Athlon," said Mark de Frere, product-marketing manager in AMD's Computational Products Group.
As to whether it helps AMD compete with Intel, "I'll leave you to make up your own mind," he said.
Athlon 4 will come in four speeds: 850MHz, 900MHz, 950MHz and 1GHz. Compaq Computer will be the first PC maker to offer the Athlon 4, in a Presario notebook, according to AMD.
According to AMD, the Athlon 4 is the fourth major revision of the processor. Starting with the original Athlon, launched in August 1999, AMD revised the chip by moving it to the a new 0.18 micron manufacturing process from the previous 0.13 micron process. With its "Thunderbird" processor core, the company revised the chip again, moving its Level 2 cache from a 512KB external cache to a 256KB integrated or internal cache, a move that sped up performance.
Still, AMD continued to call the chip the Athlon and never came out with an Athlon 2 or 3.
From now on, AMD is expected to begin branding new chips under its Athlon banner with possibly just letters. The company previously bandied about the term Athlon Pro or Professional for Athlon chips aimed at high-performance corporate computers. It later abandoned that name.
"We will tell you what we're going to call the others when we launch them," de Frere said.
The naming scheme will also let AMD claim a partial marketing victory in that its No. 4 chip will appear in notebooks in May. Intel won't squeeze a Pentium 4 into notebooks until the first half of 2002.
Code-named Palomino, the Athlon 4 contains a number of improvements. Most importantly, the chip will consume far less power than current Athlon chips. Though the Athlon 4 is slightly bigger than previous versions of this chip, it consumes 20 percent less power, de Frere said. Desktop Athlon chips right now consume about 60 watts of power, more than the Pentium III or 4. The Athlon 4 chip was designed to consume 24 watts or less, he said.
The chip is similar to a desktop Athlon in that it shares the same Socket A packaging system and cache sizes as well as a 200MHz front-side bus--the data pathway from the chip to system components such as memory. The Athlon 4 also packs AMD's PowerNow technology and 52 new multimedia instructions in the form of Intel's Streaming SIMD Extensions, or SSE1. Those instructions were introduced with the first Pentium III chips to help the chip handle multimedia by breaking data into smaller chunks, which can be processed in parallel.
PowerNow serves to increase notebook battery life by lowering the clock speed and the voltage of the Athlon 4. The technology features an "automatic" mode that continuously varies the chip's clock speed and voltages based on the demands placed on it by applications. The 1GHz Athlon 4 will be able to scale from 500MHz to 1GHz and run at voltages of 1.2V to 1.4V.
Thanks to the enhancements, AMD says Athlon 4 and other Palomino-based chips offer a 15 percent performance gain over previous Athlons running at the same clock speed. This additional gain also gives AMD a wider performance margin over Intel's Pentium 4 chip, the company said.
Much of this extra performance will come from a new Palomino feature: look-ahead cache. A cache serves as a repository for frequently used data. The look-ahead feature allows the cache to recognize patterns and automatically fetch the data needed by the processor. This way, the chip does not have to wait for the data to perform an operation. AMD says this will juice the chip's performance, especially in workstation and server settings.
By ratcheting down the power consumption, AMD will be able to slip the chip into notebooks. The chip will appear in notebooks first, then servers and desktops. Palomino-based Athlons will appear shortly in dual-processor server and workstation configurations.
AMD also announced on Monday a new version of its mobile Duron chip, based on a similar new processor core, code-named Morgan. The new Duron will offer speeds of 800MHz and 850MHz and feature all of the same enhancements as the Athlon 4, but it will have a smaller cache size and therefore will run about 10 percent to 15 percent slower than the Athlon 4.
Processor brand names are a slippery science. Although in the past, Intel and AMD changed brand names when they changed micro architectures, both companies began to more rapidly change brand names to fit different market segments in the late 1990s.
The same basic micro architecture, for instance, was used in the Pentium Pro, Pentium II, Pentium III, Celeron and Xeon. The chips differ in terms of packaging, speed, cache size, bus speed and other features, but share a common computing unit.
Similarly, the K6-2 and K6-III from AMD shared the same core. More often than not, AMD has followed Intel's branding campaigns. AMD, for example, followed Intel in coming out with a budget brand. AMD's Duron chip is a lower cost Athlon and serves a similar purpose as Intel's Celeron.
The Greco-Romanesque Athlon name also echoed the gladiatorial splendor of Celeron and Xeon. Until the name appeared, many expected the chip to be called the K-7.