PC superstar Dell Computer opened a can of worms Thursday when CEO Michael Dell criticised the technology of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) as "fragile", and cited unspecified incompatibility issues in the AMD architecture. But other manufacturers and industry analysts remain divided between those willing to back AMD-based PCs and those who say it's not worth the trouble.
It's the latest chapter in AMD's battle with chipmaker Intel, whose Pentium series of processors dominate the PC market. AMD has received accolades for its technology and says its market share has risen from three percent to more than 17 percent in the last two years or so, but many still see its defeat as inevitable.
Still, AMD is now selling to all the major PC makers besides Dell -- with the most recent addition of Hewlett-Packard -- and is seen as having the technological edge in the short term.
Dell's concerns with "fragility" are echoed by some, who point out that the Athlon is a relatively new technology that may not yet have all the bugs worked out.
While few speak of specific compatibility issues, some OEMs feel that the necessity to tailor their systems to AMD's chips -- using specific motherboards, and even having to use a more powerful internal fan to keep the machines cool -- could lead to problems down the road. "Maybe five years ago, you could have a motherboard solution and start with either [Intel or AMD] CPU," said Chris Bakolas, technical director with Dan Computer. "Today you have a number of items that have to be specially built for AMD... and it makes me as a manufacturer feel very nervous."
Bakolas pointed out that it is relatively hard to find motherboard manufacturers for the Athlon. "If I have a problem with an Intel chipset, I can change the chipset and still have a solution to provide to the customer," he said. "If there's a problem with the AMD solution, I haven't got the same amount of choice. There are a number of board manufacturers, but only one or two I can feel comfortable going to bed with."
The Athlon requires entirely new chipsets and motherboards because the Athlon bus runs at 200 MHz and uses a totally different design. At 200 MHz, the Athlon bus is twice as fast as today's Pentium III bus and is 50 percent faster than the 133-MHz bus Intel will launch this autumn.
And while vendors and analysts alike praise the Athlon, compatibility issues are not unheard of: for example, in preparing an Athlon 850-MHz demonstration PC for ZDNet sister publication PC Direct, Simply Computer encountered problems getting the Athlon to work properly with an Asus chipset, and decided to use the AMD GA-7IX motherboard instead.
Seeming to undercut Dell's argument, however, are all the high-profile OEMs who do use AMD, including Compaq, IBM, NEC, Toshiba and Hewlett-Packard.
Time Computer has been using AMD chips for several years, and says it has encountered no issues. "We had to account for Athlon tending to run hotter (than Pentiums), but that was not a problem, it was just something we fixed," said a Time representative. "We have never had a problem with instability (or) compatibility."
Time also had no qualms in introducing AMD-specific motherboards and chipsets. "Processors have been changing, and motherboards have been changing. We've been introducing them regularly and steadily over the years. It's not an issue," the representative said.
AMD plays down the significance of the separate architecture. "If a company is 100 percent Intel, it requires some effort to come over," a spokesman acknowledged. "But there aren't that many companies out there who are 100 percent Intel any more."
AMD also said the limited number of Athlon-compatible chipset and motherboard manufacturers is a temporary issue, as Athlon has only been available for a few months.
PC Magazine US and Martin Courtney of PC Direct contributed to this report.