SAN FRANCISCO -- The transition toward mainstream 64-bit computing took a big step forward Tuesday with the official launch of Advanced Micro Devices' family of 64-bit processors for desktop and notebook computers.
At a noisy, flashy marketing event in downtown San Francisco, AMD unveiled three new Athlon 64-bit processors intended for cutting-edge game PCs, high-end desktops and notebooks.
"Our industry right now is hungry for a new wave of innovation," AMD CEO Hector Ruiz told a packed house of reporters, analysts and developers. "Pervasive 64-bit computing is the engine of that innovation."
AMD's 64-bit chips are the first for the Windows-compatible platform. At the top end is the flagship Athlon 64 FX-51. Running at 2.2 GHz, and with a wholesale price of $733, the FX-51 is aimed at no-expense-spared gaming systems. Also announced were the 2 GHz Athlon 64 3200+ and 3000+, which are targeted at more affordable mainstream desktops and notebooks, respectively. Those chips will wholesale for $417 and $278.
AMD joins Apple Computer and IBM in making 64-bit chips for desktop computers. Used for many years in workstations and servers, 64-bit CPUs deliver a performance boost by processing 64 bits of data with each computing cycle, compared to the 32-bit process used in most mainstream PC chips today.
Apple was the first to bring 64-bit CPUs to the desktop. The company has just started shipping a line of Power Macintosh desktop computers based on the 64-bit PowerPC G5 processor, jointly developed by Apple and IBM.
As AMD attempts to convince the buying public that its processors are as fast or faster than Intel's, the upstart chipmaker continues its practice of naming chips in terms of performance rather than raw processor speed. For example, the Athlon 64 3000+ is roughly equivalent to a 3 GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, according to AMD.
The naming scheme is an attempt by AMD to abolish the practice of using the chip's clock rate as a metric of its performance -- a practice promoted chiefly by rival Intel.
"I like to say we're architects," said Rich Heye, AMD's general manager of its microprocessor unit. "The guys down the street (Intel) are market-ects."
For 64-bit chips, raw clock speed -- measured in gigahertz -- takes a back seat to the amount of data processed during each clock cycle. Also key is how quickly the chip can communicate with other parts of the system, achieved through faster front-side buses.
The 64-bit architecture also can access much more memory than its 32-bit counterpart. In theory, 64-bit chips can access terabytes of memory, compared to the relatively paltry 4 GB in the current generation of 32-bit CPUs.
Like Apple's G5s, AMD's chips happily run 32-bit applications and operating systems, though they won't deliver their most significant performance benefit until software is rewritten for the 64-bit architecture.
Intel's forthcoming 64-bit Itanium chips will not be backward-compatible with 32-bit applications.
Microsoft used AMD's Tuesday event to announce a beta, 64-bit version of Windows XP. The final version isn't expected until next year.
"We have no doubt 64-bit will be the dominant platform of the future," Chris Jones, corporate vice president for the Windows client division, told the gathering. Jones said he has a 64-bit AMD machine on his desk at work. "The performance has been very, very good for me," he said. "I love it. It's my main machine."
AMD's new chips are an attempt by the company to leapfrog Intel in the race for the world's fastest Windows-compatible chips.
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