What’s in a chip?

The real difference between Intel, AMD and Cyrix processors

If you’re in the market for a new PC, you’ve likely been inundated with more choices of configurations and speeds than you deem necessary. But once the smoke clears, what’s really important is the brains of the computer, known as the central processing unit (CPU). In today’s PCs the CPU is a single microprocessor chip that, in large part, determines the speed and performance of your computer.

Not only was Intel the first to create the chips, but it has also been the most aggressive in marketing them. The Intel Inside campaign has made the company a market leader and created a perception among the general public that its processors are the only game in town. On the corporate desktop Intel still reigns supreme, although its competitors are gaining. However, for the home user choices abound. Companies such as Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Cyrix have developed reliable alternatives to Intel’s Pentium and initiated a price war that spawned the sub-$1,000 PC.

Cyrix first broke the $1,000 barrier with its MediaGX microprocessor in 1997. This opened the market to price-conscious consumers-the new breed of PC users who previously found prices outside of their budget. Now the race is on between Intel, AMD and Cyrix to bring the best
performance at the cheapest cost.

Cyrix’s M II/300 processor, an upgrade from the previous 6x86MX processor, now has a robust process technology that allows it to run at higher core and bus speeds delivering optimum 16-bit and 32-bit performance running Windows 95. In fact, the M II /300 performed 25% higher than Intel’s Celeron 300MHz processor on systems with equivalent configurations. “Cyrix is a value-oriented player focused on low-end PCs,” says Dawn Stoner, semiconductor analyst with PaineWebber. Most of Cyrix customers are second- and third-tier computer makers that tend to sell direct, although it has made inroads with Hewlett-Packard and Compaq.

AMD has had more success getting major players such as IBM, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and Acer to include its chips in their machines. The high-end, however, is typically reserved for Intel. AMD’s K6-2 chip, introduced in mid-1998, weighed in with speeds of 266MHz to 333MHz. The K6-2 was also the first chip offering 3DNow extensions. 3DNow is a set of instructions on the CPU that enhances floating-point graphics performance, crucial for processing geometry
instructions in 3-D. 3DNow is also endorsed by Cyrix. In the past, both AMD and Cyrix’s floating point processing performance had been sluggish. With 3DNow, the K6-2 chip, with the correct optimization from 3-D gaming vendors, can actually have a performance advantage over Intel’s Pentium II.

Last year, Intel countered with its first low-end processor to compete with AMD and Cyrix, dubbed the Celeron. “Although initially the Celeron didn’t perform well, it’s a mistake to think Intel is out of the picture. Intel has done a phenomenal job in marketing and branding,” says Stoner. The company quickly recovered and debuted a 300Mhz and a 333Mhz Celeron processor with onboard cache and substantially increased performance. Based on Intel’s P6 technology, the same architecture on which its

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