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2004 review: AMD battles Intel for processor crown

By Alun Williams

Posted on 22 Dec 2004 at 13:33

Was 2004 the year that AMD succeeded in becoming a leader, rather than a follower, in the world of computer processors? Certainly, the one-time cloner of Intel processors has been challenging the Santa Clara giant, particularly in the 64-bit computing stakes...

At least a rough old year for Intel ended on a positive note, the company updating its sales expectations for its fourth financial quarter, citing strengthening worldwide demand. The upbeat announcement finished what has otherwise been a rather rocky (although still profitable) year.

As well as missing targets for a 4GHz Pentium 4 (before abandoning the project), other roadmap derailments have included the much-delayed 90nm Pentium-M (the second-gen core Dothan, which appeared in May), and the delay of the Alviso notebook chipset, which has hit the launch of its next-generation Centrino mobile platform, codenamed Sonoma (put back to the start of 2005), scuppering plans for a pre-Christmas launch. Not forgetting the manufacturing problems, and a minor product recall experienced with the much heralded Grantsdale chipset (Intel's third-generation desktop graphics core).

AMD, meanwhile, has quickly and quietly been gaining ground with its rollout of 64-bit processors. The key point of 64-bit processing is that it gives increased computing power, both in terms of the amount of information that can be crunched in one go as a data set and the range of memory addressing possible. But by developing the traditional x86 architecture - as opposed to vendor specific implantations, such as Intel's EPIC architecture for its 64-bit server Itanium 2 processor - AMD has ensured compatibility with the world of existing 32-bit apps, which can run seamlessly.

This is a very important inducement for businesses to enter the world of 64-bit computing when the 64-bit desktop version of Windows XP has yet to arrive (mid-2005 according to Gates at the recent IT Forum) let alone other major software applications. By presenting benefits for the present, and smoothing the path for future upgrades, AMD has successfully positioned itself at the head of an easily-understood technology: 64-bit computing.

But looking further ahead, a key battle arena for the coming year will be the development of multi-core processors - where rather than one powerful execution engine there are two or more co-operating processors. AMD has already demoed a dual-core Opteron processor. For Intel, the two key codenames are Smithfield, for the dual-core version of next-generation desktop chips, and Montecito, for dual and multi-core Itanium 2 server chips. The company followed AMD's lead with a dual-core demo (later identified as being an Itanium 2) at the Fall IDF in San Francisco.

By 2006, Intel recently estimated, over 70 per cent of all desktop and mobile processors and 85 per cent of servers will be dual-core. The company says that while hyper-threading can deliver three times the performance of the original Pentium designs, multi-core versions will eventually produce results as much as ten times faster...

Another key battle will involve mobile computing, and this is where Intel has the strongest hand. Looking ahead into 2005, we can expect to see the next-generation Centrino platform, codenamed Sonoma, finally appear in 2005, and we can also anticipate a unified brand - a la Centrino - for desktop processing in the digital home. Currently dubbed 'East Fork', this further emphasis Intel's drive to be seen as a 'platform' company rather than a producer of individual processors. And there is also 'Jonah' to look forward to (last rumoured, rather optimistically, for the second-half of 2005) when Intel bids to unify its range of mobile and desktop processors, mainly building on the Sonoma platform...

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