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Clash of Silicon, The Athlon 650
By Johan De Gelas
Wednesday, September 29, 1999 1:59 AM EDT

Does AMD's promising new Athlon processor, also known as the K7, boldly go where no desktop CPU has gone before? Has AMD kept their promise, and is there more than just hot air to all the hype surrounding this new competitor?

At Ace's Hardware, we've been rambling on and on about the vastly superior x86 architecture in the new Athlon. It takes a great deal more than a superior architecture, however, to build a processor that can compete not only against Intel's top of the line offerings, but their name as well. How well has the Athlon translated from paper to silicon? Is this indeed a true seventh-generation processor in terms of its architectural capabilities and real world performance?

Just one more little detail before we uncover all the intricacies of this auspicious new processor. That's no typo in the title, we indeed managed to test a 650 MHz Athlon and got some exclusive benchmarks to show for it. But enough introduction! Let's get the show on the road.

Before We Start...

This review is divided into five parts,

  1. Introduction
  2. 3D Gaming
  3. Future Gaming
  4. Applications
  5. Future of Athlon

In our next article, we will cover the different graphics adapters available for Slot A, Slot 1, and Super 7 systems. For those of you who are technically inclined and dying to get the scoop on what's under the hood of the Athlon, don't despair. We are currently working hard on a deeper analysis of the Athlon and the various operational units providing the results you see here.

What's So Special About the Athlon?

The Ace's crew just loves advanced CPU's, and you will find at least five articles about the Athlon's architecture alone, here at Ace's. Don't miss the links at the end of this article to know more.

The most remarkable features of the Athlon:

  • Three generalized CISC to RISC decoders
  • Nine-issue superscalar RISC core
  • Deeply pipelined and therefore build for high clock speeds (more info here)
  • The first out of order, tripple issue pipelined x87 FPU
  • 128KB of L1 cache (K6: 64 KB, PII/PIII: 32 KB)
  • Programmable backside L2 cache (Size:512 KB-8MB) interface
  • Enhanced 3DNow!TM
  • 200-MHz interface between CPU and chipset, based on the Alpha EV6 bus protocol, with multiprocessing support
  • 184mm2 at 0.25-micron, six-layer metal process, and counting 22 million transistors

As the K6 name was associated with low cost, budget PCs, AMD renamed the K7 to champion of competition or Athlon. Ok, now that we know what it is, let's get to know it!

First Encounters of the 7th Kind

Just about two months ago, I got an exciting phone call: a conference call with AMD! Lance Smith, Drew Prairie, and Jacub Rise honored your's truly with the first Athlon conference call in the world!

I had a tough time hiding my excitement. Do not worry, although these crafty AMD fellows could convince Andy Grove to buy an Athlon, I got back to my senses. Two weeks later, when I got my very own Athlon system, I began searching for the weaknesses of this Athletic CPU.

The Athlon has been my roommate for more than a month now, and it has behaved well. This must be one of the most stable systems I ever worked with. Only CPU ID manages to crash this system, most likely because it does not recognize the CPU.

In Windows 98, you only have to load the right chipset drivers before you install your videocard to get the Athlon running smoothly. In Windows NT, however, you need to apply a patch to enable the write combining features of the Athlon.

Look and Feel

Athlon Startup (POST) Screen

The 600 MHz Athlon derives the core clockspeed by multiplying a 100 MHz memory bus clock by six (the multiplier). The multiplier is configured on the processor, so unless you open the Athlon module and have access to a special device, you can not change the multiplier.

As I caught a glimpse of the internals of the Athlon system, I quickly found out that this motherboard was not meant for enthusiasts and hobbyists. The AMD Fester motherboard does not include jumpers to modify voltage settings FSB (memory) speeds. It looked more like an OEM board that you'd find in a Compaq or Packard Bell PC.

A View Inside the Case

Making the Athlete Run Faster

As you can no doubt tell from the size of the heatsink pictured above, the Athlon dissipates a great deal of heat. The following table (compiled from information found on Kim Noer's Site) displays the maximum heat dissipation for many high-end microprocessors, including the Athlon.

Max. Power Dissipation
Sun UltraSPARC II 400
21.5 W
PIII 500
25.3 W
Celeron 500
30 W
PIII 550
PIII 600
36 W
Athlon 500
37 W
Athlon 550
40 W
Athlon 600
43.6 W
Athlon 650
47 W
Alpha 21264 600
109 W

Of course, thanks to the large heatsink attached to the CPU, the CPU/heatsink package never became too hot to touch, even after hours of intense benchmarking.

A Close-up View of the K7 and Heatsink

The already impressive clockspeeds of the Athlon are ramping up even better than expected, as the fastest Athlon currently available is at 650 MHz. This is 50 MHz higher than AMD announced and reliable sources tell us that the Athlon-550/600 are good overclockers, capable of reaching 650 MHz and more.

However, The Athlon will not be easily overclockable in comparison to current products. It is necessary to have a hardware device that connects to the Golden Fingers of the CPU to change the multiplier settings.

Golden Fingers

This device is not widely available, but industry sources tell us that this will change in the future. The first Slot A motherboards can't use memory bus speeds greater than 100 MHz, but do not despair. Other, well informed sources informed us that future (Q4 ’99?) Slot A motherboards from ASUS and FIC will provide selectable memory speeds. So, despite the fact that changing the multiplier will be difficult, if not impossible, you should be able to overclock.

A New Enhanced 3Dnow! For the Athlon

3Dnow! gave the K6 family the ability to perform up to four floating-point operations per clockcycle. This has made the K6-2 a viable gaming CPU and, resultantly, 3DNow! has appeared primarily in games.

Intel's ISSE went a bit further. In addition to prefetching and SIMD FPU capabilities, Intel also implemented cache controlling instructions. While Prefetch could only help control the L1-cache, cache controlling streamlines the whole memory and cache architecture. This has made ISSE applicable to a wider software palette.

Resultantly, many industry analysts have been tempted to suggest that one day AMD will have to adopt ISSE because ISSE would become so dominant and so ubiquitous that any CPU without ISSE would become unmarketable. But this industry is not static, and while Intel is still the dominant player, AMD has managed to capture enough marketshare and mindshare to be able to offer alternative standards successfully.

Nevertheless, AMD understood that the Athlon needed more than 3DNow! if the Athlon was to be superior over the PIII in every way.

The new enhanced 3DNow! for the Athlon contains 19 additional streaming and cache controlling MMX instructions, which are very similar (almost identical) to the Intel ISSE Streaming instructions. In fact, if a programmer has optimized for Intel's streaming, it is a piece of cake to optimize for the Athlon's streaming as only the instruction names need to be changed.

In other words, although the AMD's Streaming instructions are not binary compatible with the Intel's ones, a significant amount of work isn't required to optimize for both the Athlon and the PIII. It gets even better. Five new instructions have been included to accelerate DSP, softmodem, and MP3 software.

To summarize, 3DNow! Enhanced (or Athlon 3DNow!) includes:

  • SIMD FPU and prefetch instructions (21)
  • Cache controlling instructions (19)
  • DSP instructions (5), do not exist in ISSE

So right now, 3Dnow! enhanced is more complete than Intel's SSE. It is, of course, backwards compatible with the original 3Dnow! and will be supported in DirectX 6.2.

What this also means, unfortunately, is that developers will need to optimize for Athlon 3DNow!, original 3DNow! (the K6-2 and K6-III do not recognize the additional instructions and will crash when used with them), and ISSE.

As you'll see later on in the review, 3DNow! boosts the performance of the Athlon significantly. The latest drivers for the Matrox G400, Nvidia TNT2, and 3DFX Voodoo 3 already contain optimizations for the Athlon and its new 3DNow!. S3 and ATI are currently working on optimized drivers for their products.

Beasts at Battle

AMD Athlon System

  • AMD Athlon 600 MHz
  • 512 L2 SRAM Cache on Processor module
  • AMD production level reference board Fester Rev. C
  • AMD 750 chipset
    • Northbridge: AMD-751 Irongate
    • Southbridge: AMD-756 Viper
    • 200 MHz EV6 interface speed,
    • 100 MHz SDRAM,
    • 2X AGP,
    • PCI 2.2
    • ECC support
    • UDMA-66
    • 4 port OHCI USB
    • IOAPIC support
    • ACPI 1.0 Compliant
    • APM 1.2 (Power Management)
    • 4 PCI/2 ISA/1 AGP and 3 DIMM (up to 768 MB PC100 SDRAM)
    • 2 IDE, 1 floppy, 2 serial, 1 parellel and 2 USB ports with 1 IR connector
    • CPU speed auto-detection
  • AMD bus mastering EIDE Driver V1.03
  • AMD AGP miniPort Driver V4.41
  • Thosiba SCM 212 6x DVD ROM drive
  • Linksys HPN 1000 home Ethernet card

Intel Slot 1 System

  • Pentium III 550, PIII 450, Celeron 400
  • 512 L2 SRAM Cache on Processor module (PIII), 128 KB on die (Celeron)
  • ABIT BH6 2.0
  • ABIT Busmastering EIDE Driver and AGP driver (06/1999)
  • ASUS 40x CD ROM

AMD Super 7 System

  • K6-2 400, K6-III 400
  • AOPEN AX59 Pro with 512 KB cache
  • ASUS 40x CD ROM

Common Hardware

  • Diamond VIPER ULTRA running at 150/183 and 175/200 (overclocked).
  • Creative Labs Sounblaster Live Valuie
  • Western Digital WD41800 18GB.
  • 128 MB SDRAM CAS 2

Common Software

  • Windows '98 First edition with DirectX 6.1A
  • Windows NT 4.0 Service pack 4
  • Nvidia 1.88 Detonator Drivers


  • The PIII-560 is running at 124 MHz FSB * 4.5 multiplier (overclocked PIII-450)
  • The PIII-616 is running at 112 MHz FSB * 5.5 multiplier (overclocked PIII-550)
  • The Celeron 450 is running at 75 MHz FSB * 6 multiplier (overclocked Celeron 400)
  • The K6-2 448 is running at 112 MHz FSB * 4 multiplier (Overclocked K6-2 400)
  • The K6-2 450 is running at 100 MHz FSB * 4.5 multiplier (Overclocked K6-2 400)

Before we continue, I'd like to give a big thanks to PC Magazine-Belgium for the time I've spend at their labs with the PIII-600 and other hot hardware. I'd also like to thank Huis Peter, A Belgian shop (Very good hardware prices) that was so kind to lend us the Intel P-III 450, the K6-III 400 and the ABIT BH6.

The Athlon System was courtesy of AMD

The AMD Athlon FAQ is available here.

The half-life Blowout and Quake 2 crusher benchmarks are courtesy of the master of benchmarking, Brett 3 Fingers Jacobs.

Introduction 3D Gaming

All Content is Copyright (C) 1998-2001 Ace's Hardware. All Rights Reserved.
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