| Athlon new, Part 1 The birth of the Athlon
The Athlon brand name and the products that had this name have
been with us for already a long time. This is the story of the CPU that
brought AMD the success it needed to seriously compete with Intel in terms
of performance and market-share.
In 1998 the CPU business was a crowded place, no less than 5 manufacturers
were supplying the x86 CPU market. The largest was Intel, it manufactured
the budget CPU Celeron, the PentiumII and would soon release the next
generation PentiumIII . AMD had the K6 and K6-2 in their productline.
Cyrix was manufacturing the 6x86MX/MII and the MediaGX. IDT´s CPU
design subsidiary Centaur was busy with the WinChip2 and new designs were
coming up soon and finally RiSE was almost ready to introduce its mP6.
Things seemed to go quite well for AMD, the newly released K6-2
was selling very good and AMD was more or less able to match Intel's clockspeeds.
But not all was as it seemed, despite record sales AMD had to report a
loss in both 1997 and 1998.
One of the reasons was that AMD's processor line-up was targeted at the
mid- and low-end market. Profit margins are low in those sectors. The
high-end market has much better margins but Intel roamed supreme there.
Another reason was that AMD had no high volume deals with large PC manufacturers.
Those deals provide a steady income but these demand high volume manufacturing.
AMD just could not manufacture enough CPU's because it only had one wafer
fabrication plant : Fab25 in Austin TX..
AMD had to get its share of the high-end market in order to get better
margins on its CPU´s. A superior CPU together with a larger manufacturing
capacity would bring AMD the break it needed. But the K6-2 was just not
good enough for that plan, they needed a CPU that could match, or better
yet, surpass Intel's offerings in terms of performance and price.
AMD´s 7th generation processor, the K7, had the job of beating
Intel's next generation CPU. The design team of the K7 consisted of former
K5 designteam member and was led by Dirk Meyer. Dirk Meyer had worked
for Digital and was one of the designers of the Alpha 21264 CPU. Work
on the K7, under the codename Argon, started in 1995 and it took around
17 months to complete the initial design. Early 1998 details started to
emerge about the K7. It would use the non-Intel compatible 200MHz EV6
bus licensed by Digital. Also, the CPU itself would be manufactured using
copper interconnect technology instead of the usual aluminium interconnects.
Clock speeds would be starting at 500MHz, but 1GHz was already mentioned!
These speeds were unheard of, most PC's at that time had CPU's with a
clockspeed of around 300MHz with a 66MHz bus. With these specs the K7
should certainly be a top performer.
But AMD was not betting on the K7 alone to get them a bigger share
of the market. As early as 1994 AMD had plans for a new fab, but it would
take until 1998 before construction began. AMD had made a deal with the
German government. The new processor plant, Fab30, would be built near
Dresden and create hundreds of jobs and the German government would partly
finance construction. With the extra production capacity, AMD would at
last be able to manufacture more than enough CPU's. Maybe then some large
PC manufacturers would close high volume deals with AMD.
In October 1998 on the Microprocessor Forum, Dirk Meyer gave a
presentation about the K7 and its features. He baffled his audience with
the top performance specifications of the soon to be released CPU. Unfortunately
for his audience he did not show a working system.
Not long after the Microprocessor forum, AMD demonstrated a system based
on a 500MHz K7 at the COMDEX in November 1998. Behind closed doors a few
people got the opportunity to see AMD's 7th generation CPU in action.
The system consisted of the Gomez motherboard with an early sample of
the K7. On another tradeshow, the CEBIT in March 1999, AMD showed a 600MHz
K7 on the Fester reference motherboard.
With all these "secret" presentations of the K7 and
the promised top performance, a hype started to form around the new CPU.
Many hardware sites and PC magazines wrote articles about the upcoming
K7, its specifications and whether it would outperform its rival: the
Intel PentiumIII. Also, rumours started to circulate that the K7 would
get a name. Like Intel used Pentium, Celeron or Xeon to name its CPU's.
AMD had recently registered several URL's at the time, for instance Alereon
and AMDAthlon, which name would it be?
Then, on June the 23rd 1999, finally AMD announced that it commenced
shipments of its new 7th generation microprocessor, the AMD Athlon processor!
The first Athlon's had a speed of 600MHz, 550MHz and 500MHz and prices
were respectively $699, $479 and $324. Initial production would be done
at AMD's in Fab 25 in Austin with 0.25 micron 6 layer Metal Interconnect
with standard aluminium process technology.
AMD's Athlon processor had a nine issue superscalar microarchitecture
which meant it could execute multiple instructions per clockcycle. Other
features included advanced branch prediction, fully pipelined FPU, a large
128KB (64KB instruction & 64KB data) L1 cache, an even larger 512KB
L2 cache and enhanced 3DNow! instructions. All these features were packed
in a 22 million transistor core which at 0.25 micron measured 184 square
Other features of the new CPU were the support of cache sizes
of up to 8MB, a multiplier for the cache which allowed for maximum cache
speed at different CPU clockspeeds (1/2, 1/2.5, 1/3) and the ability of
the K7 to be used in multiprocessor setup. Typical power consumption of
the K7 at 500, 550 and 600MHz was 38, 41 and 45 Watt respectively.
The name Athlon was derived from the word decathlon. Decathlon is a two
day event where contenders compete in 10 sporting disciplines. The contender
that performs best overall in all 10 disciplines wins. In short Athlon
was chosen to emphasis best performance.
The new CPU was packaged in a cartridge instead of a PGA like
the K6. Production techniques at the time weren't advanced enough to implement
the L2 cache on the core. The solution was to place the cache in the form
of two chips together with the CPU on a small PCB. This PCB interfaced
with a 242 pin SC242 connector on the motherboard which AMD named SlotA.
Intel used the same method with its PentiumII and early models of the
PentiumIII. The connector was actually the same, AMD turned the connector
around to make the installation of the CPU incompatible with SLOT1 CPU's.
Not long after the successful launch of the Athlon, news of shortages
popped up on several news sites. With the tremendous interest for the
CPU this sounds not unusual. But these reports were not about a shortage
of CPU's, but shortages of chipsets and motherboards. AMD did not just
launch a new CPU, but a whole new platform. Older CPU's like the K5 and
K6 were compatible with Intel's chipsets and could thus be used with widely
available motherboards with Intel (compatible) chipsets. The Athlon needed
its own chipset and this was a major risk AMD took.
Manufacturers of motherboards needed to design new motherboards
for the Athlon processor and chipset manufacturers new chipsets. AMD tried
hard to convince the manufacturers to support the new platform, but many
wanted to wait and see what would happen. Competition was fierce and diverting
efforts for an unproven platform was considered a big risk. To get the
initial Athlons on the market AMD designed its own chipset, the AMD 750
chipset that was manufactured by UMC. Early motherboards from FIC, MSI
and Gigabyte were all based on the 750/751 north-bridge and the 756 south-bridge.
Fortunately VIA was working on its Athlon chipset, KX133, and Ali also
announced it would start manufacturing a chipset for the Athlon. But at
the launch of the Athlon, only one chipset was available to motherboard
manufacturers, the AMD 750.
Since the launch of the Athlon in June 1999 finding the CPU and
a motherboard was though. Only in the second half of September of that
year the products began to show up in large numbers in retail channels.
Despite the initial problems, the Athlon was lauded and received
many design wins. The hardware community went nuts, at last a CPU that
could beat Intel's offerings in almost every benchmark. PC manufacturers
like Compaq and IBM announced products based on the Athlon, the future
looked bright for AMD.
To really be able to compete on every level of the market AMD
had to diversify its product line. Intel marketed the Celeron line as
budget CPU, the PentiumII/III as standard desktop CPU and the Xeon for
use in servers and professional workstations. AMD was working on multiple
processor lines, there was talk of an Athlon Ultra, Professional and Athlon
Select. But nothing of the likes was implemented at the time.
When compared to the Intel PentiumIII, the performance of the
Athlon was superior in every way. This is not that surprising because
the design and feature set of the K7 was newer and better. Only when Intel
introduced the 133MHz bus with the PentiumIII-EB the performance level
between the two was in balance.
Enthusiasts quickly uncovered the overclocking potential of the Athlon
to increase the performance even further. The cache multiplier and the
feature to manipulate the CPU multiplier via the internal debug connector
made overclocking relatively easy. To show how well the K7 would scale
in terms of clockspeeds, AMD had already shown a 1GHz system back in April
1999 at the annual shareholders meeting. This system was build around
KryoTech's Super-G phase change cooling to keep the CPU temperature below
On 29 November 1999, AMD announced the 750MHz Athlon. This was
not just another speedgrade, the 750MHz Athlon was based on a new core
revision; the K75, codename Pluto. The K75 core was manufactured at Fab25
in Austin with AMD's new 0.18 micron aluminum process technology. The
new 0.18 micron die measured 102 square mm which was considerably smaller
that the 184 mm2 of the 0.25 micron K7 die. The smaller die size of the
0.18 micron Athlons increased the number of cores per wafer. This was
very important, it meant more CPU's could be manufactured at almost the
same costs in overhead thus increase profits.
Another important milestone for the Athlon and not in the least
for AMD was the announcement of the 1GHz Athlon. On March the 6th 2000
AMD announced it had reached an industry landmark with the release of
the first commercially available 1GHz x86 CPU. Compaq and Gateway would
ship the first PC's with the 1GHz Athlon. With the release on March the
6th AMD beat Intel by two days, Intel announced the availability of the
1GHz PentiumIII on March the 8th! The 1GHz Athlons were priced at $1299
which was a premium price. In contrast the 1GHz PentiumIII cost a mere
The 1GHz Athlon was based on yet another core revision, the K75 with the
codename Orion. This core revision ran at a slightly higher voltage than
the Pluto K75, 1.8v instead of 1.7v.
June 2000 was a very busy month for AMD, several important announcements
First, AMD's newly build FAB30 began production of the Athlon using new
copper interconnect technology licensed from Motorola. AMD named its 0.18
micron copper technology process technology HiP6L and used it with 200mm
wafers which could hold about 300 cores.
Second, the introduction of another core revision, the Thunderbird, which
included 256KB cache on die and a few other tweaks. The new 120 mm2 core
had 37 million transistors and was used for SlotA and for the new SocketA
processors. The Thunderbird was produced in Fab25 with aluminium interconnects
and in Fab30 using the new copper interconnect technology.
Third, the introduction of the Duron processor, a budget CPU that had
to compete against the Intel Celeron. The Duron was a SocketA processor
with 64KB full speed cache.
AMD had used the SLOTA technology because its production techniques
weren't advanced enough to include the cache on the core. With the introduction
of the Thunderbird this had changed and AMD was ready to return to the
socket again. The new socket was named SocketA and had 462 pins. As a
reference, the Socket370 in use by Intel for their PentiumIII and Celeron
CPU's had 370 pinns.
The PC enthousiast welcomed the PGA Athlons because it made cooling the
CPU much easier. With the heatsink attached directly on the core, cooling
would be much more efficient. Unfortunately the core was also vulnerable
to damage when installing and removing the heatsink. Many SocketA Athlons
"died" because of damage to the core.
New RAM technologies were getting mainstream around 2000 and for
the x86 platform this was Double Data Rate or DDR. To be able to bring
DDR for the Athlon and so helping market acceptance and enhancing performance,
AMD designed the AMD 760 Iron Gate chipset. But AMD was also talking with
RamBus which was designing an even more advanced RAM Technology. There
was never to be a deal between the companies because of the costs and
the reluctance of consumers to use RIMM. Intel tried to push the technology,
which was a better option than DDR except in price, but it failed miserably.
The release of the Athlon CPU was a big risk for AMD, mainly because
it required a whole new non-Intel compatible platform. Many factors, which
not all have been discussed here, made the Athlon a succesfull CPU. Not
in the least the fact that AMD had produced a real 7th generation CPU
with new technologies through hard research and design work. And we should
AMD thank for that! When the Athlon was introduced many of the other x86
CPU manufacturers had stopped with their efforts and left the x86 business.
Essentially AMD was the only x86 CPU manufacturer that kept Intel from
overpricing its products.
With sales of the Athlon gaining momentum, Q4 of 1999 was closed with
a profit of $71 million and AMD predicted operating profits for 2000 after
4 years of losses.
Relevant press releases :
Discloses Next-Generation AMD-K7 Processor Microarchitecture at Microprocessor
Ships the World's Fastest x86 Microprocessor
Introduces The 650MHz AMD Athlon Processor, The Fastest, Most Powerful
Engine For x86 Computing
Ships World's First 700MHz x86 Processor
Athlon Processor Sets New Performance Leadership Mark At 750MHz Built
On Advanced 0.18 Micron Technology
Demonstrates 1.1GHz AMD Athlon Processor
Deeper in Love with the Worlds' Fastest x86 Processor: The 850MHz AMD
Athlon Processor Rockets to 1 GHz
Announces First Revenue Shipments From Dresden "MEGAFAB"
Products, More Performance, More Partners: AMD Unveils New AMD Athlon
Processor; Commences Shipments of AMD Duron Processor
Overview of models, speeds and cache :
- K7 : 500-700MHz, 512KB cache
- K75 (Pluto) : 550-850MHz, 512KB cache
- K75 (Orion) : 900-1000MHz, 512KB cache
- Thunderbird (SlotA) : 650-1000MHz, 256 cache
- Thunderbird (SocketA) : 650-1400MHz, 256 cache
External links with information about the Athlon :
The New Athlon Processor: AMD Is Finally Overtaking Intel
The Athlon 650 Takes On Intel's Heavyweights
Part 2, The Athlon XP, coming soon
Part 3, The Athlon is dead, long live the Athlon64! coming somewhat later
AMD Athlon pictures