For the past two years AMD has sought to debunk the notion that faster clock speed equals better performance. The very names the company gave its Athlon XP chips were designed to underscore the fact that they could hold their own against Intel competitors running at faster clock speeds; the Athlon XP 2400+, for example, runs not at 2.4GHz but at 2.0GHz.
With the launch of its Athlon 64 processors, AMD continues this line of thinking. More megahertz isn't the story here--the Athlon 64 FX-51 runs at 2.2GHz and the Athlon 64 3200+ runs at only 2GHz. Nor are the chips' architectural enhancements the real news. Today's announcement is significant because the Athlon 64 is the first 64-bit processor for PCs based on the x86 instruction set.
Oh, the places you'll go with 64 bits
In addition to doubling the amount of data a CPU can process per clock cycle, one of the chief benefits of going from 32-bit to 64-bit processing is the amount of memory a system can support. A 32-bit system can support no more than 4GB of memory, whereas Microsoft has said that systems with its 64-bit version of Windows, expected in the first quarter of next year, will be able to support 32GB of memory. This increase will allow systems to run much more intensive apps--and give software companies the opportunity to develop them. Gamers and digital graphics pros are expected to be among the first to benefit.
The Athlon 64 is not the first major 64-bit desktop processor. Those bragging rights go to Apple's Power Mac G5, which was announced in June and began shipping last month. The G5 aside, however, until today, a 64-bit processor could be found only in a small percentage of servers. In fact, AMD took the CPU from its Opteron server, made a few minor changes, and called it the FX-51. The Athlon 64 3200+ is a lower-cost version designed for a broader audience.
What about that other chip company?
For its part, Intel states that the desktop market for 64-bit processing is still a few years off and has not released any plans for a 64-bit processor, though its recent surprise announcement of the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition seemed to be designed to steal AMD's thunder.
While it is true that a 64-bit version of Windows is not available just yet--let alone 64-bit applications and games to run on it--that's not the whole story. The Athlon 64 includes other enhancements that deliver better performance on existing 32-bit operating systems and applications as well, according to CNET Labs' tests. We tested two systems with the FX-51 processor and were very impressed with the results. For more information on the FX-51's advantages, read our analyses of the iBuyPower Zillion-FX and the Polywell Poly 900NF3-FX1.
Is the world ready for 64-bit computing and the Athlon 64? AMD seems to think so, and what better evidence is there than seeing Intel scramble to catch up?
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