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Athlon64 Hits the Shelves

A 64-bit processor - who cares?  So far, the AMD Athlon64 seems to have inspired about as much excitement as a stripper in a graveyard.  There hasn’t been a processor this different in home computing since the 386, yet people are more interested in DVD writers and 6 in 1 media card readers.  People!  PEOPLE!!  64-bit processing in your PC!

As a brief overview, AMD have made two types of chip; the Athlon64 (for home users) and the Athlon Opteron (for servers and powerful workstations). Most PC processors made by Intel and AMD are 32-bit processors, meaning that a total of 4GB of data can be processed in any one “cycle” of the chip. Processors handle data as 1’s and 0’s, so to find out how much data, say, a 32-bit processor will process, we calculate 2 to the power of the bit. In this case it means 2 to the power of 32. A 64-bit processor sounds like this should double the data addressed to 8GB, but it doesn’t - in fact, we’re talking about a total of 18EB (2 to the power of 64; 18 exabytes; 18,000 terabytes; 18,000,000 gigabytes)!  Imagine having a processor that can handle this much data at once - video editing, video decoding/encoding, complex graphics, file compression, massive databases - everything would be quick, slick, and stupidly fast.

There have been a couple of 64-bit processor released in the past, notably the legendary Alpha back in 1992, then the Intel Itanium in 2001.  Apple’s G5 is also a 64-bit processor that is available to buy from any PC shop, although it currently handles only (!) 8GB. 

The fuss about the Athlon64 comes mainly from the fact that 32-bit applications are handled extremely well despite being a 64-bit chip. Backwards compatibility is always important to the initial success of a new technology - the manufacturers need people to "buy in" at an early stage whilst software companies examine how best to use it.  At the same time, the average user will not invest into a technology that only runs a fraction of current games and applications.  The Intel Itanium, a 64-bit processor, will run 32-bit applications at a slower rate than less powerful 32-bit processors; AMD have been cautious to avoid this scenario, probably recognising that the whole of the PC home market will not adapt just to meet the needs of this new chip.

In essence, the x86 command set is the key to AMD’s hopes. x86 is similar to a language, used by the processor to communicate with operating systems.  For example, you will see different versions of Linux and Windows NT  for different processors - the different command set/language used by the processor is the reason why.  Other 64-bit processors (namely the Itanium) handle 32-bit x86 commands by using a translator.  This is far from a perfect solution and is the cause of its poor performance on 32-bit applications.  AMD use two modes, called legacy and long, to run applications.  Legacy mode will make the Athlon64 give out performance similar to an Athlon XP, using none of the advantages promised with a 64-bit chip but assuring compatibility of current and past software.  Long mode will unleash the full force of the 64-bit architecture upon the user; unfortunately, there is nothing to do this yet, although Microsoft and developers of Linux operating systems have promised something soon.  Having a "cross-over" of new technology running old software will undoubtedly win many users over, as long as AMD stresses that this compatibility exists; most consumers are uncomfortable with having new technology if there is the possibility that support dries up, and at worst are unaware that the Athlon64 actually runs programs such as Windows XP to the same standard as Pentium4s and AthlonXPs.

Until Microsoft releases their Athlon64 version of Windows, the full potential of the chip is like a shadow; it is there but you cannot touch it. I have been fortunate enough to have access to an Athlon64 3200+; performance (with regards to games and image manipulation) is about as good as any other high-end system, so you won't be truly amazed immediately. If you're thinking of spending some wedge on a complete system, it would be wise to think to the future and buy an Athlon64 system rather than spending the same amount of money on a high-end (but limited) P4 or AthlonXP. If you're looking to upgrade your system, it may be wise to wait for now - the chip alone costs £350.00 at present, and you won't be seeing your money's worth for a few months.

If you need to take a peek at the Athlon64, take a wander over to www.amd.com and check out their in-depth articles.

Come on Microsoft, get moving! More news as it happens.

by Howard Jones
Published: Dec 19, 2003

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