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Nick Cross
July 2001
Page 1 2

AMD, set to take over the world?


In the beginning

Intel and AMD once worked hand in hand when manufacturing CPUs. It was not uncommon to see both of the brands on one chip. However, somewhere along their course, the two companies decided to split up for a number of reasons. Anyway, the situation has been the same ever since and the chip manufacturers became head to head competitors. In general, Intel and AMD produced similar CPUs in terms of normal Microsoft Windows performance, but Intel has always maintained a higher position.

Only Intel inside will do

From day one, Intel always had the performance edge. It produced faster CPUs and had major advertising campaigns beckoning the consumer with "Intel inside" logos. Intel really started its advertising campaigns in the 486 era, where it told the consumer that "Intel inside" computers were the best, and the consumer didn't know what else to choose. AMD and Cyrix (the other big players) weren't advertising like Intel, why would anyone want them?

However, Intel was right, they did make the best CPUs. The 486dx had an FPU (Floating Point Unit); the competition at the time did not. So what does FPU mean? Well, essentially, speed. At this time, Intel offered products with more features than the rest, and people had good reason to spend money on Intel CPUs. The FPU was the element of raw power; many office applications were beginning to rely on them, and often operated at unsatisfactory speeds without an FPU. The FPU is basically a powerful number crunching part of the CPU which can significantly speed up programs which use it. At the time, even games were emerging which required FPUs - most notably Doom.

Gaming

Doom wouldn't run without an FPU. Doom also happened to be the most advanced game on the market. Gaming consumers were Doom-mad; "3D" gaming was beginning to emerge. However, 3D gaming required a lot of CPU power, and gamers knew that Intel made the best CPUs for these games. Time rolled on, and Doom was not as CPU intensive as it once was - it was not necessary to have the most powerful CPU to play it, and you could play it on systems with sub-optimal components.

Then Quake appeared. Quake has been a rather influential factor on the development of computer hardware. It is thought to be a major contributor to the success and advance of 3D accelerator cards but in the CPU world, it made one thing clear - if you wanted the best gaming performance, you needed an Intel CPU. Quake was a notorious FPU thrasher; it needed immense amounts of power to run properly, so you needed a chip with a good FPU to run it well. If you didn't have a chip with a good FPU, then Quake would not run to your satisfaction. Why was this? It was because gamers had now become obsessed with FPS, or Frames Per Second. This was the phrase along which every quake gamer has used to judge the speed of hardware they could use. If one CPU could offer them better FPS over another, then the faster CPU would be better. And why was this? Because if the game ran faster, the gamer had a chance of playing better, and therefore winning. Quake was a network and internet God, and if you were good at Quake, you too were a God, so by default, you wanted a fast CPU.


In the Pentium era, FPUs were becoming important. It just so happened that Intel Pentiums had a very strong FPU, and the Pentium advertised itself amongst the Gaming world as being the chip to buy. Forget the MMX adverts and "Intel inside" logos, the Pentium was fast, and people were buying it for its merits.

AMD and Cyrix were happily skipping behind Intel, but they could not keep up. Their principle problem was their "P" ratings. The P rating essentially advertised the theoretical performance of their CPUs. Cyrix in particular were advertising P166 chips which actually ran at 150MHz. The consumer knew that the CPUs ran at 150MHz, and could not understand how a 150MHz could be the equivalent of a 166MHz Intel Pentium. However, as the P rating kept the average consumer away, FPU power kept the gamer away. The AMD K6 was a fast CPU in terms of Windows performance, it actually ran normal programs faster than the Intel Pentium at equivalent speeds. However, on both the K6 and Cyrix 6x86, FPU performance was appalling. Gamers wouldn't touch anything other than an Intel.

Tough competition

The story continued with the Pentium 2. The Pentium 2 was a the peak of Intel's dream. Intel once again produced a far superior product, with AMD's K6-2 still lagging behind, despite having introduced 3DNOW! - AMD's equivalent to Intel's MMX, which was designed to increase FPU performance in games. The Pentium 2 was the clear market leader when it came to performance. AMD couldn't keep up, and Cyrix didn't stand a chance. By now Cyrix was really having problems, stuck in the middle of the Intel and AMD; competition was tough, and if your products weren't at the cutting edge, then you were going to have problems. Cyrix were close to being thrown out of the market, and the final decision to leave followed shortly.


The P3 hit the shelves early in 1999 with the K6-3 appearing not long afterwards. Intel were blazing in glory, the P3's entrance was unhindered by any form of competition. The K6-2 was now far off, and although the K6-3 was based on much better technology than the K6-2, it was still operating on an ancient architecture- the Socket 7. Intel left the socket 7 platform with the Pentium Pro, and the more mainstream P2; the P3 was also originally based on the Slot format. This gave Intel a performance advantage especially with memory performance, showing the P3 to have a clear advantage over the K6-3.

However, why was AMD still continuing to release chips on a platform that they knew was dying? The answer was that they weren't, the Athlon was almost ready to roll, and was the factor that could make or break AMD.

Before the Athlon, AMD had one major flaw, they produced budget chips. This is fine if you wanted a cheap PC with mediocre performance, but in general, people don't. They want a PC with all the bells and whistles which has a remote possibility of being future proof - second best just isn't good enough. This meant that OEMs were selling Intel PCs rather than AMD PCs. To get a larger market share, AMD had to venture into making processors that performed. The Athlon was a risky project for AMD. If it didn't sell, then major losses would be AMD's punishment, which is why the K6-3 was launched prior to the Athlon. It was essentially a fallback, buying AMD time to re-think their strategy if Athlon failed.

Enter the Athlon

The Athlon was a new stance for AMD. Launching into the performance market was very risky. Could they compete with the brand image of Intel's new P3? Well, the answer was yes, the Athlon certainly could. Boasting a superior FPU unit, and a more competitive price, the Athlon was designed to get Intel's attention. The Athlon was AMD's first real performance CPU aimed directly at the top end P3s. As we all know, the Athlon was a success and loved by gamers. The K6-3 project was faced with an early death and the Athlon became mainstream.


However, this created a new problem. AMD now had the favour of the performance demanding consumer but where was it's budget chip now? The K6-2 was dragged back out of the closet with 500 and 550MHz flavours. These chips were immensely cheap, but compared to the performance of Intel's fruity celeron, they simply weren't fast enough, even for the budget market.

A year passed, with the Athlon still going strong, beating Intel past the ellusive 1GHz barrier. Then the issue of the budget chip was addressed: the AMD Duron was released. The Duron, like the K6-2 series, was cheap. However, whereas the Celeron ran circles around the K6-2, the Duron ate the Celeron. The Duron was cheaper and faster than the Celeron. Intel had serious competition.

With the release of the new style Athlon, the Thunderbird, Intel was beginning to find itself swimming in deep water. The T-bird was as fast, or faster, than similarly clocked P3s. However, it was also significantly cheaper. AMD was running all over Intel, so much that Intel, in a mad panic, began doing things never seen before.
   

Continued . . .

   

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