We all owe something to AMD, regardless of what processor you use in your system now, chances are that your buying decision was somehow influenced by AMD. Intel advocates enjoyed the benefits of more competitive pricing and accelerated processor release schedules that put faster processors in the hands of the masses at a cheaper price. AMD supporters obviously enjoyed the benefits of an alternative to Intel and a chance to root for the underdog, something the market has a general tendency of doing. Even for AnandTech, AMD provided us with a start back in April 1997 with the release of the K6 microprocessor, it was that processor release that originally sparked the idea to start AnandTech a little over two years ago.
For those of you that weren’t much into the desktop x86 processor market in 1997 let’s set the scene. Intel’s greatest competition in the desktop processor market was Cyrix with their 6x86-PR200+, a processor that did nothing but confuse potential buyers by its 150MHz operating frequency. AMD’s threat to the market share was insignificant after receiving a huge blow to their reputation courtesy of the incredible delay in releasing the K5 processor. Intel’s Pentium was nearing the end of its life span at 200MHz and the Pentium Pro 200 was keeping high end users happy by providing excellent performance and support for heavy-duty multiprocessor servers. The hardware enthusiast looking for an increase in power could always pursue a dual Pentium system that was considerably cheaper than a single processor Pentium Pro system.
Wednesday morning, April 2nd, 1997 marked the date of the introduction of the AMD K6 processor. The rumors that surrounded the release included the leaked information that the K6-200 would be able to compete with the Pentium Pro 200 and undercut Intel’s costs by a margin of around 25%. Others claimed that the K6 would be the return of competitive non-Intel CPUs, an increasing rarity since the release of the 486. The nondisclosure agreements expired, the information embargoes were lifted, and the results published. The K6 ended up being more of a competitor to Intel’s latest Pentium MMX than the Pentium Pro, and for games, the K6 was considerably slower than Intel’s offering at similar clock speeds. The K6’s FPU was dubbed weak, and the processor entitled a low cost solution. A problem with supplying the chips to end users [at a reasonable cost] was a major issue that the ill-fated company later became known for. Who would’ve expected that AMD would be doomed to the flaws of the K6 for the next two years and that the return of the Intel competitor would put AMD chips mainly in low cost systems and tarnish the name as an underdog, and nothing more.
Tried and Failed
With every processor release following the K6, the hopes remained high, but the results were generally disappointing. The next "big break" for AMD came with the rumors that a 266MHz K6 would make it out in time for a November ’97 launch which would once again pit AMD against Intel in a battle of clock speeds. With Intel pushing the Pentium II to speeds of 300MHz and receiving decent yields using the same 0.35-micron process they had been using with the Pentium MMX AMD needed to compete on a clock for clock basis. The only way a K6 faster than 233MHz could be produced would be on a 0.25-micron fabrication process. Rumors began to surface about extremely poor yields on 0.25-micron parts from AMD and the release of the 266MHz K6 was pushed back to early 1998, around February the parts became available but Intel had already moved to 0.25-micron and was pushing 333MHz.
The next opportunity for AMD came with addressing their weakness, their FPU. AMD was in a lose-lose situation, they weren’t able to produce enough processors to compete with Intel solely on clock speed, and at the clock speeds they were currently at, they weren’t able to produce high enough performing parts to make a significant difference in the market share. Granted they were making progress, but the outlook didn’t seem good. Rumors (you’ve gotta love those) began to surface about a mysterious K6-3D processor, supposedly a 300MHz K6 with an improved FPU, possibly one that could match or even exceed Intel’s current offerings at a lower cost. AMD’s policy became to undercut Intel’s pricing whenever possible, however sometimes it just wasn't possible. AMD was involved in a price war, one that they were trying very adamantly to win, but as we've seen in the past, often when a company is involved in a price war, they stop worrying about competing on other levels, including performance.