AMD puts 64-bit question to desktop users

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. says the environment’s ripe for pervasive 64-bit computing, but one analyst says we shouldn’t expect a huge footprint of 64-bit desktops for several years yet, and its chief rival says there’s no need for them.


ecosystem is available today,”” said AMD vice-president and general manager of the microprocessor business unit Rich Heye at the launch Tuesday of the Athlon 64-bit processors. All major Taiwanese chipset and motherboard manufacturers are building hardware to support 64-bit processors, Heye said. Microsoft Corp. released the first beta of its 64-bit XP operating system at the launch, which was Webcast from San Francisco.

The 64-bit processors will be a cornerstone of “”cinematic immersion”” — theatre-quality graphics and sound for entertainment applications and business simulations — according to Dirk Meyer, AMD’s senior vice-president of the computation products group. Content designers are currently constrained by 32-bit processors’ speed and addressability limitations, Meyer said.

A 32-bit processor can address about 4GB of physical memory. A 64-bit processor and operating system can address 16TB, according to Microsoft’s corporate vice-president of the Windows client division Chris Jones.

AMD launched its first 64-bit processor for servers and workstation, Opteron, in April, targeting competitor Intel Corp.’s 32-bit Xeon line. The new Athlon chips — the 64-3200+, 64-3000+ and 64-FX51 — are squarely aimed at Intel’s Pentium market: desktops and laptops.

“”Every technology builds on the last, and every new technology creates new demand,”” said AMD president Hector Ruiz, and consumers will never tire of the cycle. “”Our industry is hungry for another round of innovation.””

Intel doesn’t share AMD’s enthusiasm for 64-bit desktop processors. “”There’s really no need for 64-bit on the desktop,”” said Doug Cooper, general manager of Intel Canada. “”We haven’t had any discussion of 64-bit on the desktop.””

Intel makes a 64-bit processor, Itanium, for servers. But the company is focused on better multitasking and wireless connectivity for its desktop and laptop chips, hence the focus on multithreading application development at last week’s Intel Developer Forum in San Jose, Calif.

“”There no (desktop) applications tuned for 64-bit,”” Cooper said.

Peter Glaskowsky doesn’t expect a stampede to Athlon’s 64-bit line. The few who move to the 64-bit chip now will be doing so “”because it’s a really good 32-bit processor,”” said the Micro Design Resources analyst and editor-in-chief of its Microprocessor Report.

AMD took a page from its own playbook, developing a 64-bit Athlon that is based on the x86 architecture and is backward-compatible with 32-bit applications. It was the same strategy behind April’s Opteron launch.

Teamed with a 32-bit operating system, the new Athlons function as 32-bit processors. Apple Computer Inc.‘s G5 processor, however, runs a 32-bit OS with some 64-bit functionality — for example, 64-bit math and data movement (but not memory addressability, which is a function of the operating system).

“”They (Apple) have to be different, or they would have to compete on a price basis,”” Glaskowsky said. “”They can’t afford to do that.””

And for users for whom 64-bit functionality on the desktop is the priority rather than compatibility with applications, Sun Microsystems Inc. makes SPARC-based machines that are 64-bit from the ground up — processor, operating system, applications and all — for under US$1,400. For the classic 64-bit market — software development, scientific computing, huge databases — where “”the 64-bit-ness”” of the machine is most important, “”that’s your best bet,”” according to Glaskowsky.

If AMD says the future is now and Intel insists 32-bit is more than adequate for the desktop, that’s because they have different product schedules, not because there an ideological schism, Glaskowsky said.

“”The reality is somewhere in between,”” he said. While some might see immediate benefits, some won’t for another three or four years. Eventually, 64-bit processors will have a 90-plus per cent footprint in the PC market, but the migration won’t begin in earnest for another two years, Glaskowsky said. That will roughly coincide with Microsoft’s release of Longhorn, its first Windows OS designed from the ground up as a 64-bit environment.

Price won’t be a restraining factor — in the low US$700-range, the FX51 is priced at the traditional high end of the PC processor range. But convenience will, said Glaskowsky. A 64-bit operating system requires 64-bit drivers, and 64-bit versions won’t be widely available. That won’t affect all peripherals, but USB peripherals might have issues, Glaskowsky said.

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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a technology journalist with more than 15 years' experience. He has edited numerous technology publications including Network World Canada, ComputerWorld Canada, Computing Canada and eBusiness Journal. He now runs content development shop Dweeb Media.

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