“I have no idea."
That was the candid response of a customer service agent at Compaq's direct-sales service. Our question: What is AMD’s new Quantispeed architecture, and how does it relate to the actual speed of AMD's recently launched Athlon XP 1800+ chip?
He's not the only one who is confused. When AMD launched its Athlon XP processor last week - complete with architecture changes and a new naming scheme based on 14 benchmark results instead of typical megahertz speeds - industry analysts expressed concern that the changes might confuse customers.
It seems to be confusing PC sales staff, too. We made informal inquiries at a number of direct-sales PC makers that offer AMD-based systems, asking basic questions about the new Athlon XP and what new model numbers - such as the 1800+ - actually mean. Their answers range from off the wall to almost accurate. One thing our unscientific and anonymous study did show: AMD has some fans among sales staff in places that carry both Athlon XP and Intel's Pentium 4.
For the record: AMD names its new chips by using benchmarks to determine their relative performance compared to pre-XP Athlon chips. Its claim: Megahertz is no longer the most telling indication of processor performance – a message Apple has also been plugging heavily this year.
Just Ignore Them
A friendly salesperson at Alienware, which caters to people seeking high-end gaming machines, told us not to be concerned with the meaning behind the Athlon XP's 1800+ tag on one of the company's systems.
"Don't worry about those numbers; as a matter of fact, ignore them," he said.
He went on to amend that statement, suggesting we think of it this way: "Compare that number to the speed of a Pentium 4. It means it's as fast as a 1800-MHz P4."
He pointed out the Athlon XP 1800+ actually runs at 1.53 GHz, but noted that systems with the chip should perform as well as 2-GHz Pentium 4-based systems because "AMD's architecture is better."
That's exactly what AMD wants to hear, although the company maintains its new naming scheme is based on comparisons between today's Athlon XP chip and the performance of the pre-XP Athlon running at higher megahertz, according to Pat Moorhead, the company's vice president of customer advocacy.
"To be crystal clear: The model numbering system shows the relative performance between Athlon XP chips, and signals that it is a superior product to the 'Thunderbird' chip," he said.
"To the end user, all they need to know is the 1800+ will outrun a comparable 1.8-GHz chip," he said.
Confused, But Trying
Calls to MicronPC and a local Best Buy store found salespeople confused, but game to try to figure out the meaning behind the new Athlon names.
At Best Buy, the friendly salesperson admitted right away he wasn't sure what the 1800+ stood for on the Compaq Presario mentioned in the company's Sunday advertisements.
Undeterred, he grabbed some paperwork and read off the fine print on the Quantispeed architecture and some other high points -- although the literature never actually described how AMD arrived at its 1800+ label.
An equally friendly salesperson at MicronPC paused to find an article on the topic before she tried to explain the naming process. After reading through the article, her tangled explanation proved humorous but confusing.
"Basically, (AMD) wanted it to be comparable to a 1.8-GHz Pentium 4. But it is actually closer to a 2-GHz (P4). Our 2-GHz P4 beats it, but others do not. I feel comfortable saying it compares to the 2-GHz Pentium 4."
AMD began training its vendor partners about the name change a week before the launch, and Moorhead said he's not surprised that some are still learning the ropes.
"(There are) always a few weeks after the launch that you're working real time with your partners," he said. Working out the kinks, and clearing up any confusion just takes some time, he said.
For example, after AMD moved from its original Athlon chip to one code-named Thunderbird, many vendors called the processor by its code name -- even though they weren't supposed to.
"A lot of people called it Thunderbird for the first few weeks, but that wasn't the actual name -- it just took some time to get the message out," Moorhead said.
In the meantime, the confusion probably doesn't hurt AMD, according to Rob Enderle, research fellow with Giga Information Group.
"In a way, this may work for AMD. They were at a severe disadvantage in terms of megahertz," he said, comparing the Athlon's former top speed of 1.4 GHz to the Pentium 4's top speed of 2 GHz.
Enderle said he has conducted unscientific surveys of potential customers. "I've been showing it to people shopping for machines -- my sense was that the novice users equated the 1800+ to megahertz, even though they didn't really know what megahertz were."
A knowledgeable salesperson at system builder Falcon Northwest summed up the Athlon XP 1800+ name this way: "The 1800 stands for nothing."
"They (AMD) are trying to get people to get away from megahertz," he said. "A lot of people are hung up on that number, but it's only one factor."
Memory, motherboard, bus speeds, and other factors also have a large impact on performance, he said. Relying on just frequency as a measure of performance is faulty logic.
Giga's Enderle agreed.
"(With megahertz) we're just talking about horsepower, and that is a problem," he said. "We need to need to address the whole system performance."
AMD's Moorhead said his company used to rely on speed as a good indicator of system performance. "AMD was part of the industry that talked about megahertz as a good gauge--but it is no longer," he said.
That's why the company intends to lead an industry initiative to find better ways to discuss a system's real capabilities. "The industry must adopt a new proxy for performance other than frequency," Moorhead said. "We need a zero-to-sixty score, instead of just the RPMs."
This report was compiled in the US for Digit’s parent company, IDG.