AMD releases 65nm chip for desktops

The next step in the vendor's battle with Intel is underway. Ben Ames reports

Advanced Micro Devices has begun selling its new 65 nanometer desktop PC chip, continuing its efforts to keep up with Intel as the industry migrates from 90nm design to a faster, more efficient generation of processors.

By manufacturing its dual-core Athlon 64 X2 chip on the smaller geometry, AMD will be able to increase manufacturing output while improving the chip’s performance and power efficiency, says Jack Huynh, a market development manager for AMD.

Some PC vendors are selling the new chip in computers already and, by the first quarter of 2007 that list will include Acer, Dell, Founder Electronics, Hewlett-Packard, Packard Bell and Tsinghua Tongfang, according to AMD.

The move to 65nm manufacturing is crucial for AMD as the company strives to keep up with a flurry of new processors from Intel.

The latter had a rough year in 2006, losing ground to AMD in market share, but has rallied in recent months. It launched its Core 2 Duo family of desktop chips in July and its quad-core Core 2 Extreme in November. Intel switched its chip manufacturing plants to a smaller architecture several months ago, and already sells more 65nm chips than 90nm ones.

A chip made with 65nm process technology has smaller features — such as transistors and the wires that connect them — than a chip made with 90nm technology, says Rob Willoner, a technology analyst with Intel’s technology and manufacturing group. That progression is the engine that drives Moore’s Law, the prediction that the number of processors on a microprocessor will double every 18 months.

A nanometer is a billionth of a metre, meaning that the wires on 65nm design chips are far slimmer than human hairs. Minuscule as that is, chip vendors already have plans to shrink the parts even smaller. Intel has already announced plans to use chip features of 45nm by 2007, 32nm by 2009 and 22nm by 2011.

As chip features continue to shrink, engineers struggle harder to take each new step. But as long as customers demand smaller, more efficient computers, there’s plenty of economic incentive for the process to continue, Willoner says.

“There’s bound to be an end at some point, but we can’t see it yet,” he says. “At one point, people said it was one micron, which is 1,000 nm, but the industry passed that without blinking about a decade ago. Now some people are saying it’s 5nm. I don’t see it happening before 2020 or 2025, and by then we could have radically different technologies to compensate.”

AMD chose to apply the new “Rev G” 65nm design to its high-end, dual-core desktop chip first because the company’s mid-range, single-core Athlon and Sempron chips are already fairly efficient, running at 62 watts using a 90nm design, says AMD’s Huynh.

The Athlon 64 X2 operated at 110 watts when it was first launched in June 2005, but this migration will bring it down to just 65 watts, he says. AMD will continue to produce both 90 nm and

65nm Athlon 64 X2 chips until it phases out the larger-design chips completely by the second half of 2007.

Next, AMD plans to apply the 65nm design to its single-core Athlon and Sempron chips, shrinking them by the end of 2007. The company has already begun work on the next step, shrinking its chips to a 45nm design, although it won’t give a specific date for that goal.

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