The year dawned with AMD releasing the final revisions to its Athlon processors. With a larger amount of L2 cache (512KB), these new Barton cores were on a 130nm process and were given PR ratings of up to 3200+. Unfortunately, the clock speeds were not much higher than previous Athlons and were capped at 2.33GHz. When we last saw the Athlon XP (based on the Thoroughbred core) in 2002, it had already "lost the GHz race, and has lost the performance battle".
Our review of the 3000+ Barton seemed to think that it was a "rather attractive processor for users who want the best performance out of their current Athlon-based system ... and managed to beat the 3.06GHz P4 in certain benchmarks. The final say was that the Athlon XP 3000+ processor does offer compelling value" but it looked like AMD had restored some parity to the scene. However, even the company knew that it was the final toss of the dice for its K7 micro-architecture and in that year, it would first introduce a serious server competitor to Intel's Xeon chips and then a consumer version, both of which were based on the new K8 micro-architecture.
We were not yet done with the Barton though, and following our successful modding of the Athlon XP into a Athlon MP, we attempted the same with the Barton cores and had another success. With that, we were quite convinced that "whether it's a Morgan, Palomino, Thoroughbred or Barton, there's no reason why you cannot mod them to operate in dual processor mode."
Of course, the big event for AMD in 2003 was the introduction of its new K8 micro-architecture and we first saw that with the server oriented Opteron processors. As a 64-bit processor that had AMD's new AMD64 ISA extensions to run legacy 32-bit processors with hardly any performance penalties, the Opteron introduced many innovations like its use of HyperTransport, silicon-on-insulator technology, integrated memory controller and prompted us to speculate that the "Opteron could be the next big thing in the modern computing era."
The Opteron has since emerged as a viable alternative to Intel's server class processors and in its heyday, was able to secure major deals with workstation and server vendors like HP and Sun. It managed to chalk up a market share of around 25% in quite a short period of time. The delays and performance of the newest iteration based on the K10 micro-architecture however has dimmed its appeal but since the server market is relatively static, expect the Opteron to remain in contention and in service in many companies for the near future. The upcoming 45nm versions may also inject a much needed boost to its competitiveness.
The consumer version of the K10, the Athlon 64 followed the Opteron in September 2003. This was something that AMD needed for quite a while now, as our massive CPU shootout that year had found even the newer Bartons unable to surmount the performance of the Pentium 4. This was especially true for the higher end models, as even after we factored in the price of the platform, we found that while the "low-end Athlon XP processors still offer compelling value especially to those who are on a tight budget ... comfortably settle for a faster Pentium 4 2.8C with a lot of spare cash left."
The new Athlon 64 meanwhile brought the same innovations that we already saw with the Opteron and restored competitiveness with the Pentium 4. Our own review of the top end FX version saw us declare that the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition and the Athlon 64 FX-51 "are pretty much tied in the top position. But, if you are looking for a processor just for gaming, we had to give the Athlon 64 FX-51 our two thumbs up for its excellent delivery of frame rates in majority of the 3D games tested in this review." It was a quick comeback for AMD and bringing the industry into the 64-bit era impressed us enough for it to receive our Most Innovative Product award.