Analysis: Why major players snub AMD's Athlon

AMD is turning the heads of techies world-wide with its Pentium-bashing 650MHz Athlon chip. So why are key PC vendors, including current UK leader Dell, still reluctant to adopt AMD's new baby?

To the most cynical of us, the answer is easy: Intel's buck is a greater attraction than AMD's bang, and for manufacturing giants like Dell or Gateway, the possibility of sacrificing a lucrative Intel Inside contract for the sake of a chip with a temporary performance lead is unthinkable.

But there are further factors to consider.

Steve Duignan, UK product manager for Dell's Dimension range -- the desktop PC family currently using high-end Pentium III chips and thus most suited to AMD's Athlon. Although he admits that price/performance is usually paramount for Dell, he highlights the company's similar decision to adopt the Celeron processor early, when AMD's K6 was performing better in performance testing. "To be honest, we did evaluate the Athlon during pre-testing, as we always have done with previous AMD chips, but the big problem is the company's ability to supply," says Duignan. "AMD hasn't got a particularly good track record in its ability to ship to order and that's the kicker. We're not alone in this -- look at Gateway."

Right now, AMD is knocking up the new 0.25 micron aluminium chipsets in Texas but has promised to begin greater bulk production from a new 0.18 micron copper plant in Dresden in the first half of next year. Coming good on this promise is key to Athlon's market acceptance. "We don't have any visibility of AMD's Dresden plant being able to get up to speed and supply in the necessary bulk," says Duignan. "Great benchmarks are all well and good but if they can't supply to demand for two months, it's a non-runner for Dell."

Supply problems apart, the Athlon 650MHz is undoubtedly the current darling of the technology press, with impressive Intel-crushing benchmark results coming out of every test lab both sides of the Atlantic.

In a flat race, Intel Pentium III 600MHz systems will always finish second to AMD's faster silicon. In terms of raw clock speed, the Athlon outstripped the fastest PIII by a mighty 27 percent. This is largely due to its greater talent for handling both integer-based and floating-point code.

But as any competitor preparing for a long race will tell you, speed isn't everything. Consumers want more assurances from their chip vendor for future-proofing their investments. Assurances such as a history of superlative technology, lengthy warranties, bundled software packages, tight integration with other silicon elements on system boards and the ability to ship in massive volumes on request.

Duignan says: "With Coppermine in the pipeline, Intel looks as if it will regain the high ground. For a couple of months, AMD win the spec wars but they don't have an astounding combination of integration with the motherboard and further chipsets. It's a concern when it comes down to real life performance."

Dell's strategy of continuing to snub AMD at every turn is not hurting the PC maker's profit margins and it looks like consumers are more than happy with Intel inside. On 17 August, Dell announced record Q2 results. Overall, earnings per share rose 58 percent for the period, as quarterly revenue increased 42 percent, to $6.1bn (£3.72bn). In the last month of the quarter, Internet sales to Dell customers reached $30m per day. In Europe, Dell achieved a 24 percent revenue gain and the company was also ranked number one in UK PC shipments for the first time during the last quarter.

What makes the Athlon sing

  • excellent integer-based and floating point performance

  • 128KB of L1 cache

  • up to 8MB L2 cache

  • 200MHz Alpha EV6 bus technology

  • 650MHz clock speed, the fastest in x86 history