AMD's Athlon-650 pulls ahead

This week Advanced Micro Devices, which unveiled four speedy versions of its new Athlon chip, led by a 650-MHz version that shoots ahead of Intel's best. PC WorldBench tests found an Athlon-650 reference system blew away the average Pentium III-600 by 14% or more, and squeaked by the average Athlon-600 by 3 to 5%.

This week Advanced Micro Devices, which unveiled four speedy versions of its new Athlon chip, led by a 650-MHz version that shoots ahead of Intel's best.

PC WorldBench tests found an Athlon-650 reference system blew away the average Pentium III-600 by 14% or more, and squeaked by the average Athlon-600 by 3 to 5%.

AMD unveiled the Athlon (formerly the K7) in four versions: 650 MHz, 600 MHz, 550 MHz, and 500 MHz.

The best news: You won't have to pay a premium for all that speed. Fully loaded Athlon-650 systems (sans monitor) should cost $US2100 to $2400, which is about what you'll pay for a comparably equipped, though slower, Pentium III-600 PC. If you're creating multimedia content, doing 2D or 3D modeling, or working with complex scientific calculations, systems with the new Athlon 650 should be on your shopping list. (Or, if you simply need the fastest of the fast, you should take a look). For power fiends on a budget, an Athlon-600 system, available for $200 to $300 less, is a better deal.

By mid-September, expect to see Athlon PCs for the home- or small-business users from companies such as IBM, Compaq, Polywell, CyberMax, and TigerDirect. IBM's Aptiva S Series 865, for example, will feature the Athlon-650, 128MB of SDRAM, a 20.4GB hard disk, an 8X DVD-ROM drive, and an Nvidia Ultra TNT2-based graphic boards with 32MB of graphics memory. Pricing will be announced upon release, but systems should cost between $2199 and $2399.

Performance Plus

Why are Athlon systems so fast? First, the chip includes 128KB of L1 cache, four times more than the L1 cache on a Pentium III. AMD added new floating-point units and enhanced the chip logic to speed applications that perform complex math operations.

These chip enhancements are most apparent when running graphics apps and programs that tax floating-point performance. In our floating-point-intensive AutoCAD test, the Athlon-650 was 27 percent faster than the average Pentium III-600. In our graphics-oriented Caligari TrueSpace 4.1 and Expendable tests, the Athlon 650 topped the PIIIs by almost 18 percent.

You'll get most of these performance benefits from the Athlon-600. Differences between the Athlon-600 and the -650 were negligible in most cases. The AutoCAD test result, however, improved by nearly a minute--it's just a 5 percent boost but if you're the one waiting, you may notice.

View From the Top

With the Athlon-600 and now with the -650, AMD has moved to the big league, posting a significant performance improvement over Intel's current offerings. Although producing enough chips to meet demand has been an issue for AMD in the past, it shouldn't be a problem with the Athlons, according to Keith Diefendorff, editor-in-chief of the market research publication, Microprocessor Report.

So, if you need speed now, Athlon systems are worth a look. But if you can wait a few months, you may want to wait for Intel's response. In late September, Intel will be shipping faster PIII systems using its new 820 chip set. This chip set supports a 133-MHz front-side bus and 4X AGP. Systems using this chip set will also include RDRAM, a fast new type of main memory. Early systems with this chip set will run faster, but probably won't catch the Athlon--not with today's apps.

Later this year, Intel should release faster new Pentium III chips. How those new PIII PCs with faster memory and graphics will stack up against current and future Athlons is anybody's guess. Regardless, the competition at the top should eventually drive down prices all around and make these hot-rods even more attractive.

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