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WinLab Reviews
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AMD-K6 processor
K6 Steals Pentium Pro's Thunder

-- by Jonathan Blackwood

Remember the poor bespectacled frump from high school who shows up at the class reunion looking like a fashion model? The music fades, classmates stare, and the supremely confident prom queen finds herself on the sidelines, aced out of the limelight by a truly hot rival.

Intel Pentium Pro, meet the AMD-K6. Generally faster than the Pentium Pro, fully enabled with Intel's MMX technology, less expensive to buy and cheaper to incorporate in new PCs, Advanced Micro Devices' new 233MHz chip just may waltz away with a bit of Intel's center stage. It certainly will steal some of the shine from the forthcoming Pentium II processor (better known by its development code-name, Klamath) scheduled to make its debut any day now. (For more information on Intel's plans for new processors, see this month's Newstrends.)

If you're old enough to remember DOS and WordPerfect 5.0, you may remember AMD as a 286 supplier to name-brand computer makers of old. Its business eclipsed by the 386 onslaught, AMD until recently has had to settle for supplying its Pentium-compatible K5 chips to second- and third-tier vendors, and selling 486 chips to overseas markets. With the introduction of the K6, that seems destined to change.

Our tests of K6 demonstration systems-the first to be done outside manufacturers' labs-show the K6 to be faster than the fastest currently available Pentium Pro processors. On average, our prototype K6 systems were able to offer about a 20 percent performance advantage over similarly equipped Pentium Pro 200 systems. (See sidebar "Fast Moves from an Upstart Chip.")

Remember that the two K6 systems we examined were not even preproduction systems-they were prototypes, feature-laden demonstration units designed by AMD to showcase the chip. But even without the souped-up configuration that undoubtedly boosted performance in these preview units, the K6 processor should still easily keep up with a Pentium Pro. That should be welcome news for the performance-minded.

High performance, low price

It'll be even more welcome news for the budget-conscious and could ignite a new round of PC price wars. In fact, the K6's principal advantage to manufacturers, at least initially, comes from its much lower-cost PC design and assembly. Where the Pentium Pro and its offspring are forcing costly new design changes to existing PC motherboards and components (see the sidebar "Like Intel Says, It's What's Inside that Counts"), the K6 processor is designed to slot into existing motherboards with a minimal amount of modification.

The K6 is slated to sell to manufacturers for a fraction of the cost of today's fastest Pentium Pro processor, the 200MHz. The 233MHz K6 will sell in 1,000-unit lots for $469 apiece; right now a 200MHz Pentium Pro is as much as $1,000 in the same quantities, although all these prices will likely drop as the next group of faster Intel chips appears.

The price difference quite likely augurs a new generation of high-performance, low-priced desktops. One vendor has told us privately that he hopes to have a 200MHz K6 system on the market later this year for $1,200, compared to similarly equipped, $2,000-plus Pentium Pro machines. The first commercial systems using K6 should begin appearing through direct-sales manufacturers as you read this. Volume shipments should be available early this summer.

Shifting to high gear

AMD plans to introduce its first K6 offerings in three clock speeds: 166-, 200- and 233MHz. A 266MHz version should hit the market by year's end, with a 300MHz K6 coming out in very early 1998. Intel has publicly stated that its goal is to shift consumer attention from 200MHz Pentium to Pentium Pro-class machines. Intel plans to add a brand new 300MHz chip, code-named Deschutes, to its line in late 1997 or early 1998.

Volume is usually the stumbling block for Intel's competitors, which can't match the company's extremely deep pockets, extensive fabrication capabilities and high-volume pricing. But if any company is positioned to take on the Intel juggernaut, it's AMD. The company has opened a state-of-the-art FAB 25 plant in Austin, Texas, and has a new FAB 30 plant coming online in Dresden, Germany, in 1999. AMD should be able to churn out the K6 by the tens of millions when the new FAB opens.

The two 233MHz K6 systems we examined were identically configured, with one running Windows 95 and one running NT 4.0 Workstation. These were maxed-out configurations, to be sure, loaded with a full 1MB of level 2 cache, 64MB RAM, and the fastest possible SCSI, video and CD-ROM (for more on their configuration and performance, see "Fast Moves from an Upstart Chip"). The systems ran Windows 95, NT 4.0, Word, Excel and Windows Magazine's Wintune 97 beta without a hitch.

Pitting these optimized lab boxes against production systems is a risky business. We expect such machines to be faster than off-the-shelf computers, so be sure to take the numbers from our test results with a grain of salt. We compare them here only to give you a general idea of what to expect from this exciting new processor. All benchmarks are compared using a beta of our forthcoming Wintune 97 test, available for download now at www.winmag.com.

The K6 promises higher PC performance at lower cost. If Intel responds as it has in the past-witness last year's dramatic price drop for the Pentium Pro chip following the Cyrix 6x86 PR200 chip introduction-you can expect the Pentium Pro and future Pentium line chips to be more aggressively priced as well. AMD is positioning the K6 as a desktop and mobile solution (unlike most Pentium Pro processors shipping or on the drawing board, the K6's size and energy requirements make it well suited for mobile applications) and has no plans to enter the server market.

AMD hopes the combination of performance, price and ease of implementation for manufacturers will allow it to garner a 20 to 30 percent world market share for x86 processors by 1999; double or triple its current 12 percent share market. That may be stretching things a bit-achieving that production level is a big "if" for anyone who's not Intel-but the K6 constitutes the first real challenge Intel has had in its Windows 95 desktop space. The budget-conscious can only benefit from the fallout.

Higher performance, lower cost. We like the sound of that.

AMD-K6 processor
Price: 233MHz chip, $469 apiece in 1,000-unit lots; first commercial systems to start at about $1,200
Platforms: 3x, 95, NT
Pros: The fastest MMX-enabled, Pentium Pro-level performance; lower price than an Intel processor
Cons: Fast results obtained with demo may slow down in commercial systems
Strongest rival: 200MHz Pentium Pro
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Windows Magazine, May 1997, page 100.

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