Success of Athlon Depends Upon Motherboards

Amidst all of the hype and frenzy of the AMD Athlon, there are some serious questions still unanswered. While the processor has been shown to be extremely fast and powerful, there is still the question of chipset and motherboard availability, as well as stability issues. The reports from manufacturers indicates that they have been somewhat slow to jump on to the Athlon bandwagon for two basic reasons: processor availability and system stability.

AMD has a reputation for not delivering on time. The cost of designing and producing a brand new motherboard is not trivial, and manufacturers are fearful that the availability of the Athlon will leave them with large quantities of motherboards that quickly lose value. These manufacturers find themselves in an industry where the average lifespan of a product is 3 months before it becomes obsolete. AMD has indicated that they will ship a few hundred thousand processors in Q3 – hardly enough to provide robust sales for all manufacturers.

Stability is probably the most critical issue, simply because serious stability problems will damper the enthusiasm of the end user – and everyone knows that first impressions are very difficult to overcome. Just look at the Celeron, which still has a bad reputation in the minds of many consumers even though it is now almost on par with it’s Pentium II cousin. Manufacturers have reported to us that they are seeing stability problems with the AMD chipset, and if these are serious enough it will cause the majority of users to wait several months, which is not in the best interests of these manufacturers. Two manufacturers have informed us that they will initially only import 200 to 300 boards as a marketing test.

Because compatibility is a major concern with a new product such as this, AMD has provided a list of hardware that they have tested and verified as compatible. This list is quite extensive and includes video cards, memory and even power supplies. The biggest issue appears to be that if the power supply does not supply the voltages properly, the chipset will become damaged rendering the board unusable. This appears to be a chipset issue, and AMD has provided a ‘fix’ to the motherboard manufacturers. Due to this (and possibly a few other problems), the first round of boards was rejected by AMD, which means the earliest most manufacturers will have boards available is the end of August (around the 23rd).

The first motherboards out will use the AMD 750 chipset, which consists of two pieces – the 751 System Controller, and the 756 Peripheral Bus Controller. The 751 chip includes the frontside bus, system memory controller, AGP controller, and PCI bus controller. The 756 chip contains the PCI-to-ISA bridge, USB controller interface and EIDE UDMA-33 and -66 controller. Unfortunately, the 751 chip only supports the AGP 1.0 specification, which is limited to 2x data transfer, and supports only PC100 SDRAM. The 756 chip is PC-97 compliant, and therefore does not have any of the advanced power management features available on so many chipsets today.

Motherboards using the AMD chipset require a 6-layer PCB, making them somewhat expensive, so most manufacturers are anxiously awaiting the VIA KX133 chipset. This chipset will include AGP 4x, PC133 and VCM support and PC-98 compliance. Motherboards using this chipset will only need a 4-layer PCB, making them much cheaper. What is very interesting is that while most manufacturers are initially using both the AMD 751 and 756 chips, FIC has decided to use the VIA VT82C686A South Bridge Controller instead, and there is a possibility that these boards may be available first. One particularly distressing piece of news is that while VIA is starting to roll out samples for KX133 chipset now, they won’t have anything in mass production until mid-Oct. Reports indicate that this program “lacks conviction” and there is “sluggish support” for the product.

Everyone knows that prices in the industry drop rapidly, so many people may simply decide to wait until the boards are more stable, and prices drop. No manufacturers have yet given ‘official’ pricing, apparently because they are still feeling out the marketplace. The danger is pricing them too high and dampening the enthusiasm that currently exists. This situation is very critical to AMD, since sales of the Athlon will make or break the company between now and the end of the year. Of course, there will always be those who purchase products right out of the chute, simply because they want to be the first on the block to have one. It remains to be seen whether these individuals work with the manufacturers to iron out stability issues, or simply proclaim the platform unsuitable for use as soon as they run into problems. If the latter occurs, this could cause some serious PR problems for AMD, and may even cause some motherboard manufacturers to sit back and wait until the dust settles.

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