"Athlon was good, but the new Athlon is even better " is the best way to summarize AMD's new Thunderbird processor. The new integrated L2-cache is able to boost Athlon's performance to a level that's now fully able to compete against Intel's Pentium III in almost any benchmark that's not one-sidedly enhanced for Intel's ISSE-instructions only. The attractive pricing of Thunderbird will ensure the continued success of the Athlon CPU. However, those of you who expected that Thunderbird would leave Coppermine far behind may be a bit disappointed. AMD is facing quite a bit of work if Athlon is supposed to compete well against Intel's upcoming 'Willamette' processor.
The bad news about Thunderbird is the fact that current owners of Athlon systems will face problems to upgrade to the new AMD-CPU. Thunderbird will only be available as SocketA-version in the retail market and it seems as if this will require new motherboards. We will have to see if it should indeed be impossible to use SocketA-to-SlotA converter cards as those products slowly become available. However, AMD's move to Athlon's socket-version is certainly the right thing to do and people who are interested into buying a new Athlon system now will be able to take advantage of the reduced system costs that come with SocketA. As 'Duron', Thunderbird's little brother with only 64 kB on-die L2-cache, was launched today as well, AMD is now offering a direct upgrade path for customers of this new chip. Duron is also using SocketA and can thus easily be replaced by Thunderbird.
With Intel struggling to deliver enough Pentium III processors in the performance segment above 800 MHz, AMD can jump into the gap with Thunderbird, if this processor should be available in reasonable amounts. In the last half-year AMD proved that it could fulfill the demand for Athlon processors a lot better than Intel was able to do this with its Pentium III, so we should be able to expect the same for Thunderbird.
Last but not least there will be the platform issue however. SocketA motherboards with VIA's Apollo KT133 chipset are just about to become available and there are more attractive Athlon-platform solutions visible at the horizon already. VIA's KT133 is only a KX133 with SocketA-support, thus sporting AGP4x, ATA66, but only PC133 memory support. AMD's 760 chipset as well as VIA's next Athlon chipset KZ266 will both support DDR-SDRAM as well as ATA100 and therefore offer an even faster platform for the new Thunderbird and Duron processors. Keep this in mind before you go and buy the first KT133-motherboard that becomes available.
All in all we can expect a hot summer and fall this year. Thunderbird will be able to grab an even larger piece of the x86-processor market with its improved performance and its attractive pricing. Intel might be forced to drop the prices of its Pentium III processors earlier than planned, until finally 'Willamette' will start the performance race again.