Power play

A small company, AMD, is betting its future on its 64-bit Athlon computer chip. It'll give home users vastly increased processing power. But is this something we really need?

When the struggling chipmaker AMD brings out its new processor in September, the über-computer maven Jon Stokes knows exactly what he's going to do: buy one. Like millions, Stokes has been holding off on an upgrade. But he will splash out on the Athlon 64, because it represents the next generation of the desktop computer - the first 64-bit chip designed for the PC.

"Enthusiasts are holding off right now, but 64-bit is the way of the future," says Stokes, who writes about microchips for the geek site Ars Technica (www.arstechnica. com). "Someone will make something cool for it and I want to be there."

The last time such a change occurred was in 1985, when Intel's 32-bit 80386 replaced the 16-bit 80286, giving the power for Microsoft to put an effective graphical user interface, Windows, atop DOS. But this time round Intel is sitting it out, allowing the much smaller AMD to test the waters, and saying there's no need for the upgrade. This may sound odd for a company whose founder is the author of Moore's Law, which says that chip speed doubles every 18 months. But Intel says it prefers to work on other improvements: "hyperthreading" to improve multitasking, better wireless communications, more USB connectivity and lower power consumption.

AMD is betting the company that it is right and Intel is wrong, says the analyst Mike Cohen, who covers AMD for Pacific American Securities. "If AMD fail they could be doomed. They are not in the greatest financial position." In the past five years AMD has only had one annual profit; last year it lost $1.3bn (£800m). The situation forced AMD's chief executive, Hector Ruiz, to embark on a bold strategy: to pioneer the next generation of computer chips.

AMD can take comfort from the fact that the great maverick and pioneer of computer design, Apple, is expected to announce 64-bit machines using the IBM PC740 chip in June, along with its next operating system, codenamed Panther, which, it is expected, will be able to run 64-bit code.

Leading the way to 64-bit desktop computing has galvanised AMD, and its shares have more than doubled since August last year. You can almost see the stars in John Crank's eyes when the Athlon 64 product manager talks of its September launch and what he hopes will follow. As he tells it, in bedrooms, living rooms and home offices around the world, the user will have the same processing power as nuclear scientists. Video gamers will be in photo-realistic heaven. Hollywood editors will envy what little Johnny can do with digital video. Entrepreneurs will come up with untold consumer applications - the next Napster? - and Intel will be eating silicon dust.

So it's only a question of the hardware? No, says Cohen. "Without the right software, all Athlon has is marketing; 64-bit computers won't run 32-bit applications any faster." That's because doubling the number of bits a processor can read, from data streams 32 bits wide to 64 bits wide, does not double the computer's speed - just as doubling the width of a motorway doesn't make the cars on it any faster, but in theory means that twice as many can pass a given point in the same time. In theory, a 64-bit computer can process far larger calculations because it can access enormous amounts of RAM - the processor's most important store of information.

A 64-bit chip like the Athlon 64 can directly address up to 18 million terabytes (one terabyte = one thousand gigabytes) of RAM, compared to the 4Gb limit of 32-bit computing (which in practice uses 31 bits, limiting it to 2Gb). A cost-saving measure means the Athlon 64 will actually function in 48-bit mode, but that still leaves it able to address up to 260,000Gb directly. The chip boasts other performance boosts, too. AMD has doubled the number of "registers" on the chip, where intermediate data from calculations is stored: this lets it get and store information far more quickly.

Crank is convinced there will be strong demand; Cohen and Stokes agree. "The gaming community will run with it," says Stokes. To reach the holy grail of gaming - photo-realistic action graphics rendered on the fly - they will have to move to 64 bit.

There are other encouraging signs for the Athlon 64's backers. The most popular online game, Counter Strike, has already released a 64-bit version of its server software. Its engineers are quoted as saying they got a 30 per cent uptick in performance.

Epic Games, which makes the hit Unreal Tournament and the Unreal Engine that is the basis for many video games, says it has been waiting for the 64-bit revolution and has a 64-bit game in the pipeline. "On a daily basis we're running into the Windows 2Gb barrier with our next-generation content development and preprocessing tool," said Epic's guru Tim Sweeney on the tech forum Slashdot. "We tell Intel this all the time, begging for a cost-effective 64-bit desktop solution. Intel should be listening to customers and taking the leadership role... on the soon-to-be-massive market for cost-effective desktop 64 bit."

Important support is coming from Microsoft, which plans to release a 64-bit version of Windows XP before the end of the year. Cohen predicts that this will increase performance on 64-bit computers by 20 per cent, and may persuade other software companies to invest in porting existing 32-bit programs to 64-bit code. The Microsoft move is key, says Cohen: "Everything depends on the software."

The big question about 64 bit, though, is whether the average user will see tangible benefits. Gamers and digital-video editors apart, most people's bottleneck is outside their machines: it's the time taken to download information over the internet. And, while 64-bit computing may also enable rapid improvements in encryption, no one presently buys computers because of that.

Then there is the problem of bringing out a product during economic doldrums. Steph Marr is a cybersecurity expert who prides himself on paying four times as much as the standard buyer simply because he buys equipment when it first comes out. But this time Marr is planning to wait a while. "I like having a big [games] image on my desktop. Now if the 64 bit can get that image to snap, that would be worth a lot," he says. "Things are still too shaky to justify that."

Still, most analysts believe that the Athlon 64 will pay off for AMD. "They had no choice. They had to put all their eggs in this basket," says John Lauy, who covers the company for RBC Capital Markets. "I like the concept. The beauty of it is that it can run all existing programs. It is a point down the Moore's Law curve getting to the next killer application." Cohen is even more upbeat: he is recommending the company's stock. More important, he's buying an Athlon 64 when it comes out.