AMD technology – A History into AMD

AMD’s involvement in personal computing spans the entire history of the industry, the company having supplied every generation of PC processor, from the 8088 used in the first IBM PCs to the new, seventh-generation AMD Athlon processor. The company started as a producer of logic chips in 1969, then entered the RAM chip business in 1975, the same year that it introduced a reverse-engineered clone of the Intel 8080 microprocessor.

In fact, the commonly held view that the Athlon represents the first occasion in the history of the x86 CPU architecture that Intel had surrendered the technological lead to a rival chip manufacturer is not strictly true. A decade earlier AMD’s 386DX-40 CPU bettered Intel’s 486SX chip in terms of speed, performance and cost.

In early 1982, AMD signed a contract with Intel, becoming a licensed second-source manufacturer of 8086 and 8088 processors. IBM wanted to use the Intel 8088 in its IBM PC, but IBM’s policy at the time was to require at least two sources for its chips. AMD later produced the 80286, or 286, under the same arrangement, but Intel canceled the agreement in 1986, and refused to hand over technical details of the i386 part.

In the early 1990s both Cyrix and AMD made their own versions of Intel’s 486DX, but their products became better known with their 486DX2 clones, one copying the 486DX2-66 (introduced by Intel in 1992) and another upping the ante to 80MHz for internal speed. The 486DX2-80 was based on a 40MHz system bus, and unlike the Intel DX2 chips (which ran hot at 5V) it ran at the cooler 3.3V. This was in part due to the power management features offered by the AMD chips, an innovation on which Intel would follow suit a couple of year later. Clock-tripled versions of their 40MHz 486 processors running at 120MHz were subsequently introduced.

Although Intel stopped improving the 486 with the DX4-100, AMD and Cyrix kept going. In 1995, AMD offered the clock-quadrupled 5×86, a 33MHz 486DX that ran internally at 133MHz. AMD marketed the chip as comparable in performance to Intel’s new Pentium/75, and thus the company called it the 5×86-75. But it was a 486DX in all respects, including the addition of the 16K Level 1 cache (the cache built into the processor), which Intel had introduced with the DX4.

In the post-Pentium era, designs from AMD continued to meet with reasonable levels of market acceptance, especially in the low-cost, basic PC market segment. With Intel now concentrating on its Slot 1 and Slot 2 designs, the target for its competitors was to match the performance of Intel’s new designs as they emerge, without having to adopt the new processor interface technologies. As a consequence the lifespan of the Socket 7 form factor was considerably extended, with both motherboard and chipset manufacturers co-operating with Intel’s competitors to allow Socket 7 based systems to offer advanced features such as 100MHz frontside bus and AGP support.

Mid-1999 saw some important developments, which were to have a significant bearing on the competitive position in the processor market over the coming years. Following its acquisition a couple of years earlier, Cyrix finally bowed out of the PC desktop business when, having got into financial difficulty, parent company National Semiconductor sold the rights to its x86 CPUs to Taiwan-based chipset manufacturer VIA Technologies. The other significant development, somewhat less welcomed by the industry leader chipmaker, was AMD’s seizing the technological lead from Intel with the launch of its new Athlon (formerly codenamed “K7”) processor.

With Intel announcing delays to its “Coppermine” 0.18-micron Pentium III at around the same time as AMD’s new processor’s launch, it was going to be interesting to see whether the company could capitalize on its unprecedented opportunity to dominate in the high-performance arena and what impact the Athlon would have on the company’s fortunes in the longer term.

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