Processor race gets fast and furious

The world’s two largest processor companies are looking for metrics that will show speed is not the only area of competitive difference in their latest CPUs.

Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) Monday both released additions to their product lines within hours of each other. Intel’s chip, code-named “Northwood,” runs at 2.2 GHz and 2 GHz, while the AMD Athlon XP 2000+ clocks at 1.67 GHz. HP and Compaq are slated to support the Athlon, while Compaq will also release products with the Intel chip along with Dell.

Despite the difference in clock speed, the Northwood is more notable for an accompanying chipset that will allow users to upgrade to the much-faster Double Data Rate (DDR) memory.

Doug Cooper, country manager for Intel of Canada in Rexdale, Ont., said Intel originally looked at DDR in the latter part of last year but needed to work with standards bodies to ensure it could ship volume chipsets with a compatible memory base. “We felt that some of the timings on those memory devices force manufacturers to actually select sticks of memory to match their chipset. We didn’t think the timings were tight enough,” he said.

The Northwood also marks an important transition for Intel from a .18 micron fabrication process to .13. That means the features on the chip are approximately 130 nanometres in size. Moving to a smaller geometry allows processor companies to attain better yields, get more chips on a die and less defective chips, which means the company can make more profit.

Cooper wasn’t certain how far the .13 micron process would take Intel on its product roadmap. “The design dictates more about how fast you’re going to go. The longevity of the Pentium 4 design will probably take us to 10 GHz from a clock speed perspective,” he said. “That’s probably the more important part. The actual process technology we have a continuous evolution that takes us well below 100 nanometers.”

Cooper said the move means Intel will get twice the number of chips per wafer, which is important for volume demands. This will double again, he added, when it goes to 300 millimetre wafers later this year.

John Crank, brand manager with AMD in Sunnyvale, Calif., points out that prior to the Northwood launch AMD’s products were at 128 square millimetres, whereas Intel was at 217 square millimetres an inch. Crank said this represents about a 68 different cost in manufacturing. “Their die is still on the order of 17 per cent larger than our 180 nanometre processor,” he said. “They need to go to 300 millimeter wafers just to become competitive with AMD.”

In the meantime, AMD plans to move to a 130 nanometre process on its Thoroughbred processors in the second half of this year, which will result in Athlons with an 80 square millimetre die, Crank said.

Nevertheless, microchip consultant Gary Baradine in North Vancouver, B.C., said Intel has a significant time-to-market advantage over AMD, which does not plan to move to 300 millimetre wafers until 2005.

“To get a new geometry and get the processes in place with all the masking and all the fab lines and stuff and get it running, that’s a six-month to one year effort to get that place,” he said.

Cooper admitted that clock cycles are probably not enough anymore to incite purchasers.

“Raw technology speeds and feeds are probably of less interest to a consumer, whether you’re in a business or a home,” he said. “(But) more and more of what we do as consumers — listening to music, watching movies — involves the PC at some point or another. And making that easy and transparent to the consumer requires performance.”

Crank agreed, pointing to the rise of MP3s and digital video as key applications that will take advantage of newer chips. “It’s great that a PC does so well on a synthetic benchmark, but doesn’t it mean more to you, if you use digital video for your job, that with an Athlon processor that you can do it 50 per cent faster? That hits home.”

Baradine was more cautious.

“There’s a whole bunch of people that want to move to the newest technology; I call it the crumbling leading edge of technology. It’s fraught with difficulty,” he said. “Those people that move to that are willing to take the risks, that there might be some operational problems . . . personally I don’t do that. I wait a couple of years until things settle down. Let someone else take the hits.”

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