AMD says Pentium 4 'a step backwards'

Advanced Micro Devices came out swinging with its Athlon XP processor launch, calling Intel's Pentium 4 a performance failure while chastising the company for "taking advantage of consumer ignorance" in the way it markets the processor. The Athlon XP offers several performance enhancements, as well as a new naming scheme that AMD says better illustrates its capabilities compared to other processors. The first round of chips - available immediately in systems from Hewlett-Packard and Compaq - include Athlon XP chips sporting the model numbers 1500+,1600+,1700+, and 1800+. AMD is naming the new chips by using benchmarks to determine their relative performance compared to today's Athlon chips. Thus, an Athlon XP 1800+, while running at 1.53 GHz, performs like one of today's Athlons running at about 1.8 GHz. AMD says an independent auditing firm will confirm its testing results. Consumer education aside, most industry observers note that an obvious reason for AMD's new naming scheme is the fact that the P4 has reached 2 GHz while the fastest Athlon runs at 1.53 GHz. Even though Athlon-based PCs have consistently performed better on benchmarks than PCs with faster P4s, AMD has faced a serious marketing problem among consumers who still equate megahertz with speed. Of course, AMD is partly to blame for reinforcing this belief. The company engaged in a much-hyped megahertz war with Intel last year, which culminated in the Athlon reaching the 1GHz mark first. Now the company wants consumers to ditch megahertz and gigahertz as performance measures, moving instead to a complex new system. Most analysts agree that could be a tough sell. Fighting words "We're going to beat up our big brother," says J. W. "Jerry" Sanders III, AMD chair and chief executive officer, referring to an article that called AMD "the little company down the road" compared to Intel. The company intends to beat Intel by educating consumers that when it comes to processors, performance is more important than pure megahertz, he says. The new Athlon XP chips may not offer the same frequency as current P4 chips, but a better architecture insures they'll out run them in most applications, he says. Digit tests tend to support that statement. In addition to its new chip naming convention, AMD plans to head up a new industry effort to more accurately represent processor performance for the long term. The effort is dubbed the True Performance Initiative. AMD officials say the company will use a series of independent benchmarks to dispel the "megahertz myth." Sanders: P4 failure Traditionally, using megahertz as a measure of processor performance was a rough but fairly accurate process for consumers. With its P4, Intel changed all that, Sanders said. "Common sense is that each new product should be an improvement. With this generation of Pentium it [Intel] has failed," he said. Under the P4's architecture faster doesn't mean better. In fact, the P4 is 20 per cent less efficient than Intel's PIII chip, he said. "The P4 is a step back in innovation," he said. And by offering the P4 at high frequencies that don't match previous performance standards, Intel is counting on consumers not to know the difference, he says. Intel doesn't comment on its competition, but George Alfs offered this take on performance: "Intel's P4 at 2 GHz is the world's highest performance desktop processor," he said. Further, he said, the chip's design will allow it to scale to much higher frequencies over time. "P4's Net Burst architecture has the ability to scale to 10GHz in its lifetime," he said. True performance initiative To show it means business when it comes to discerning performance over speed, Sanders announced that AMD has created a new senior position geared toward watching out for consumers. Pat Moorhead assumes that new position, the vice president of customer advocacy. In spearheading the True Performance Initiative, Moorhead says he intends to help create an industry effort that uses independent benchmarks to establish credible performance comparisons consumers can use. The TPI is a separate entity from AMD's current naming scheme for the Athlon XP. Moorhead admits that convincing users to look at something besides megahertz will be an uphill battle, and noted that customers have relied on megahertz as a measure of performance for 20 years. The new metric won't win people over immediately, he said. IDC Senior Research Analyst Shane Rau isn't convinced that AMD's initiative or new naming scheme will ever resonate with buyers, because the process is just too perplexing. "There is a great chance at confusion," Rau says. That is exacerbated with AMD suggesting the model numbers compare Athlon XP with today's Athlon, but then hinting that the numbers are a good comparison to P4 as well. And past attempts at performance ratings don't give much reason for optimism, Rau says. "Given the experience with PR ratings, I'm very wary of the model number scheme," he says. AMD's Sanders dismissed the issue of past failures with processor performance ratings. Asked how AMD would success where others have failed, he says: "Nobody who has had a superior product has failed." Sanders shed light on just how long he expects the new naming convention to last when he rattled off the possibility of Athlon XP chips with increasingly large model numbers. "We'll have a model 10,000 by the time they reach 10GHz," he said.

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