John G. Spooner
Advanced Micro Devices is preparing to fire a new engine for hot-rod PCs.
The chipmaker will unveil its Athlon 64 FX-55 chip next week, in an effort to bump up the performance of game desktops and other high-end PCs in time for the holiday season. The chip is expected to be unveiled on Tuesday, along with the AMD Athlon 64 4000+, the company's highest-performance processor for mainstream desktops.
Chips such as the Athlon 64 FX and Intel's Pentium 4 Extreme Edition populate the very top of the desktop market, appearing mainly in game machines fitted with the latest graphics cards and high-performance storage systems to render games with the greatest speed. PC makers generally don't sell game machines, which often cost well more than $2,000, in large numbers. But the market segment is one of the more profitable of the desktop PC business, both for manufacturers and for AMD and Intel.
The high-performance game PCs can also create a so-called halo effect that elevates manufacturers' more pedestrian desktops, not unlike the way General Motors uses its Chevy Corvette sports car to elevate the image of its sedans. Indeed, performance information posted on AMD's Web site Friday reveals that the Athlon 64 FX-55 offers an overall performance improvement of 8.7 percent over the Athlon 64 4000+.
"The volumes behind these products are very small, but the intent of them is to establish a performance-leadership position, and the (chips) do make significant revenue contributions, because the price of the product is so high," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst with Mercury Research. "That's the whole concept of a halo (product). Whether its (Intel's) Extreme Edition E or the Athlon FX, they serve to establish the leadership assocation, and hopefully, that rubs off on everything else."
While tricked-out PCs have long been the realm of smaller PC makers, including Alienware and Falcon Northwest—and in the past, those manufacturers have often been first to offer Athlon 64 FX chips—larger companies, including Hewlett-Packard, have begun marketing their own game machines as well.
HP offers the Athlon 64 FX in its Compaq X game system. The Compaq X GX5000Z desktop, configured with AMD's current Athlon 64 FX-53 chip, 1GB of RAM, twin 160GB hard drives, a DVD burner and Nvidia's GeForce FX 5500 graphics card, sells for about $2,500, according to the HPshopping Web site.
Like many other game PC manufacturers, HP also offers high-end chips from Intel in the Compaq X, thus allowing customers to choose the processor manufacturer and model they desire.
As in the past, Intel will respond to the new Athlon 64 FX chip with a Pentium 4 Extreme Edition processor. Intel is expected to deliver a 3.46GHz Extreme Edition chip next month as well. Although the Extreme Edition chip runs at lower clock speed than Intel's mainstream Pentium 4, the chipmaker added other performance enhancements that it says gives the Extreme Edition better performance capability.
The chipmaker aims to bring out a 3.46GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition in early November. Besides a slight bump in clock speed from the 3.4GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, the newer chip incorporates an extra 2MB of cache, enlarging the pool of memory that stores data near its processor core in order to boost performance. The chip will also feature a speedier, 1,066MHz front-side bus, which will speed up the movement of data back and forth from the chip to memory. Mainstream Pentium 4s have 1MB of main cache and an 800MHz bus.
Starting next year, Pentium 4s will have 2MB of cache as a way to boost performance, the company said Thursday, when it announced that it would kill a planned 4GHz Pentium 4.
Companies such as Dell, which offers the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition in its Dimension XPS game system, are likely to offer the chip.
Still, the most extreme desktops are most often delivered by smaller companies such as Alienware. The Miami company recently began offering an option for a special, overclocked version of the Pentium 4 running at 4GHz in its Area-51ALX desktop, for example.
Representatives from Intel refused to comment on unannounced products. AMD declined to comment.