Athlon 64 delayed until September

AMD will launch its long-awaited 64-bit Opteron server chip in April, and will rely on new 'Barton' desktop processors to compete against Intel for now

AMD is to delay the launch of its next-generation desktop processor, the Athlon 64, until September, the company said on Friday.

It also announced the official launch date of the server version of the Athlon 64 -- called Opteron -- which will debut on 22 April in New York City. While buyers are waiting for the Athlon 64, AMD will release two new desktop processors based on its current 32-bit architecture: the Athlon XP 3000+ on 10 February and the Athlon XP 3200+ in mid-2003.

The delay of the Athlon 64, which was originally set for launch months ago, is likely to erode the chip's performance lead over Intel's Pentium 4 processors, although the Athlon 64 is based on 64-bit technology and the Pentium 4 is a 32-bit processor.

AMD said that the new Athlon XP chips, based on a core code-named Barton, were powerful enough to maintain a competitive edge against the Pentium 4 on the desktop until the arrival of the Athlon 64. The company pinned the delay on the lack of a "suitable" consumer operating system for the chip. Microsoft has demonstrated an AMD-compatible 64-bit version of Windows, but no final release date has been announced.

"There is not much point in putting a 64-bit chip out there without a 64-bit operating system to go with it," said an AMD spokesman. "We can't launch other people's products for them."

Using a technology AMD calls x86-64, the company added new instructions to the current x86 processor architecture that extended the chip to 64 bits of data. Sixty-four-bit architecture enhances the performance of servers by allowing them to support much larger amounts of memory than current AMD Athlon chips, which manage only 32 bits of data. Thanks to the extra memory, a server can decrease access times for data by minimising its need to seek out that data on a hard drive.

Sixty-four-bit processing offers few advantages for the desktop, according to AMD's spokesman, but the Hammer architecture "is the engine that will drive performance up." The Athlon 64 chip, like the Opteron, also includes a HyperTransport memory interface, which boosts performance for applications that access large amounts of memory, such as 3D games.

AMD says its approach is better than rival technologies -- which require new software -- because x86-64 maintains compatibility with current 32-bit software, allowing companies to run their existing wares on the servers as well. The approach also allows AMD to use the same chip for both the desktop and server markets, unlike Intel, which sells the Pentium line for 32-bit desktop PCs and the Itanium for 64-bit servers.

"AMD believes the future of computing, from high-end servers to mainstream desktop and notebook PCs, will be based on pervasive 64-bit computing," said Rob Herb, AMD's executive vice president, chief sales and marketing officer, in a statement.

On the server side, AMD has been demonstrating various flavours of Linux as well as Windows for several months, and said that all major distributions of Linux would be finalised by the Opteron's launch. IBM, Oracle, Tivoli, Covalent and others are porting high-end applications to Opteron.

AMD is relying on Barton, an update of the Athlon core, to keep its desktop chips competitive. Their main innovation is a larger integrated memory cache, which speeds performance by minimising the delay caused by fetching frequently used data from memory.

"Barton is doing rather well for us," the AMD spokesman said. "It will keep us in a competitive position for quite a while yet."

News.com's John G. Spooner and Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.


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