July 31, 2001

Review: AMD Athlon 1.4 processor

Author: JT Smith

- By Jeff Field -

While some people may have learned the name AMD in the past few years, I have known about the company for a long time. My second x86 PC was an AMD 386DX-40. So, how far has AMD come in the past decade? I am testing the AMD Athlon 1.4 GHz processor to find out.The Athlon line

The name, Athlon really encompasses three processors -- the Athlon-Classic, the newer Thunderbird line of CPUs, and the even newer Athlon CPUs based on the new Palomino core, dubbed the Athlon 4 or AthlonMP. These CPUs are designed for both multiprocessor and low-power tasks, thanks to their new design. However, for the single processor desktop, AMD is still focusing on the Thunderbird line.

The Thunderbird line was introduced a year ago when AMD, like Intel, made the move back to sockets from the failed idea of slot processors, which turned out to be too costly to manufacturer, harder to cool, and harder to integrate into low-profile system designs such as 1U servers. The Thunderbird also signaled the integration of the L2 cache onto the actual processor, rather than on the CPU packaging, but in separate chips. This allows for the L2 cache -- the memory the CPU uses to access frequently used data without accessing the slower memory bus -- to run at the same speed of the processor, and without the latency associated with going outside of the CPU itself.

This line of CPUs is where AMD is reaching its top clock speeds -- up to its current top of the line -- 1,400 MHz. It is this latest CPU I am reviewing.

The chip

The Athlon 1.4GHz (or 1,400MHz) CPU is AMD's fastest chip. It is similar to all other members of the Thunderbird family, differing only in clock speed. It has 256KB of on-die L2 cache, as well as 128KB of L1 cache. It uses a 0.18 micron process, making the size of the CPU smaller than the older 0.25 Micron Athlon, yet larger than later-model slot Athlons, due to the addition of L2 cache on the CPU die.

Heat is, as almost always is the case, an issue with this CPU. Due to the increased transistor count (coming in at 37 million!) of the combined CPU and L2 cache, it generates a lot of heat. But unlike older CPUs, the core of the CPU is exposed on the top, allowed for direct contact between it and a heatsink, allowing a more efficient transfer of heat to occur. Still, a good amount of cooling is required for these CPUs, with some of the most elaborate cooling systems to date becoming available for them.

System Specifications

AMD Athlon 1.4GHz
Soyo K7ADA Motherboard (DDR Athlon)
Soyo K7VTA Pro Motherboard (PC133 Athlon)
Soyo TISU Motherboard (Pentium III)
256 Megs DDR PC2100 SDRAM from Crucial.com
256 Megs CAS2 PC133 SDRAM from Crucial.com

Western Digital 7200 RPM 10.2 Gig Hard Drive

3Com 3C905TX-C 10/100 NIC (PCI)

300 Watt AMD-Approved ATX Power Supply
Abit Siluro GeForce 2 MX400 64MB AGP

Mandrake 8.0 with Kernel 2.4.3

For performance comparison purposes, similarly configured systems are used, where only the memory type (PC133), the processor type and the motherboard are different.

Kernel compiles

In order to test both the board's stability and speed, I ran three sets of Linux kernel compiles on this board. One is a normal, "uniprocessor" make, or make -j1, which is the default. This uses one process, and does not always maximize system usage. I then did make -j2, which spawns a second process. The last test I run is with make -j3, spawning two extra processes. I do this for several reasons -- to find the "sweet spot" for the board/CPU, as well as to stress the system as much as possible when trying to rate its stability. Also, the kernel is extremely useful as a measure of integer performance. In order to compile the kernel, I untarred kernel 2.4.6, ran 'make config' and used the default values (In other words, I hold down the 'Enter' key)

Kernel 2.4.6 Compile Times (Minutes:Seconds)
Board -j1 -j2 -j3
Athlon 1.4 - DDR 4:37 4:32 4:28
Athlon 1.4 - PC133 4:44 4:39 4:41
Athlon 1.0 - PC133 5:52 5:49 5:46
Athlon-Classic 750 8:39 8:36 8:35
Pentium III 933 6:07 6:09 5:59

As we can see here, DDR has a noticable, if not major, lead over PC133. Users of older Athlons, such as 750MHz Athlons, will see a huge improvement -- an 87.39% increase of speed. For the Pentium III 933 users, the improvement is a much smaller 32.5%, so I would not rush out to upgrade that Pentium III just yet, and the same goes for a 1.0GHz Athlon, at least if you are concerned about compiling.

POVRay Benchmarks

POVRay is a multi-platform raytracing program. It is a floating point intensive task and serves well to help measure the floating point performance of a CPU. For more information on this benchmark, head to the official POVBENCH homepage. The command to run for this benchmark, once you obtain POVRay, is povray -i skyvase.pov +v1 +ft -x +mb25 +a0.300 +j1.000 +r3 -q9 -w640 -H480 -S1 -E480 -k0.000 -mv2.0 +b1000 from the command prompt. Results are in seconds.

Board Result
Athlon 1.4 - DDR 15
Athlon 1.4 - PC133 15
Athlon 1.0 - PC133 20
Athlon-Classic 750 28
Pentium III 933 30

As you can see here, there is a clear improvement in tasks such as rendering, with the 1.4GHz Athlon taking 46% less time than the Athlon 750, which makes sense because the CPU is running at twice the speed. Surprising was the Pentium III performance here, with a 933 being a couple seconds slower than the Athlon 750. This could be due to a number of things, such as how optimized POVray is for 3DNow versus SSE how it uses the floating point units on the chips. Clearly, however, the Athlon 1.4 is a worthy CPU for those looking to build cheap, single processor rendering machines, or even for building clusters of systems to render.

Quake 3 Arena Timedemos (Frames Per Second)
Board 640x480 800x600 1024x768 1200x1024 1600x1200
Athlon 1.4 - DDR 175.4 129.3 85.1 52.8 36.8
Athlon 1.4 - PC133 159.1 127.4 85.1 52.8 36.8
Athlon 1.0 - PC133 136.2 122.4 85.0 52.8 36.8
Athlon-Classic 750 104.0 101.5 82.1 52.3 36.6
Pentium III 933 132.4 121.8 85.4 52.8 36.8

Once again, we come to the conclusion that 3D is more likely to be limited by the card you use than the CPU, and that if your primary concern is gaming, then you need to upgrade your video card first and foremost. Upgrading your CPU and RAM certainly will not hurt, but you just won't get the increase in frames per second that you are looking for. The only resolutions you are going to find increases in is 640 by 480 and 800 by 600, where the video boards are not limited, and how many people do 3D in those resolutions?

The AMD Athlon 1.4GHz CPU is the top of the line for AMD CPUs, and is considered by many to be the current top of the line overall. Intel has been lowering the prices of its Pentium 4 CPUs and has also introduced a newer line of Pentium III CPUs, named Tualatin. With this pressure from Intel, AMD is sure to continue clocking its CPUs higher and higher to keep up. Intel already has a 1.7GHz CPU widely available and a 1.8GHz CPU that has recently become available at high prices. If you are looking for a relatively inexpensive way to get top-of-the-line performance on your Linux desktop, the AMD Athlon 1.4GHz is available for around $167 on Pricewatch.


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