Other Sixth-Generation Processors

Besides Intel, many other manufacturers have produced P6-type processors, but often with a difference. Most of them are designed to interface with P5 class motherboards and for the lower-end markets. AMD has recently offered up the Athlon and Duron processors, which are true sixth-generation designs using their own proprietary connections to the system.

NexGen Nx586

NexGen was founded by Thampy Thomas, who hired some of the people formerly involved with the 486 and Pentium processors at Intel. At NexGen, developers created the Nx586, a processor that was functionally the same as the Pentium but not pin compatible. As such, it was always supplied with a motherboard; in fact, it was usually soldered in.

NexGen did not manufacture the chips or the motherboards they came in; for that it hired IBM Microelectronics. Later NexGen was bought by AMD, right before it was ready to introduce the Nx686—a greatly improved design by Greg Favor and a true competitor for the Pentium.

AMD took the Nx686 design and combined it with a Pentium electrical interface to create a drop-in Pentium-compatible chip called the K6, which actually outperformed the original from Intel. The Nx586 had all the standard fifth-generation processor features, such as superscalar execution with two internal pipelines and a high-performance integral L1 cache with separate code and data caches.

One advantage is that the Nx586 includes separate 16KB instruction and 16KB data caches compared to 8KB each for the Pentium. These caches keep key instruction and data close to the processing engines to increase overall system performance.

The Nx586 also includes branch prediction capabilities, which are one of the hallmarks of a sixth-generation processor. Branch prediction means the processor has internal functions to predict program flow to optimize the instruction execution. The Nx586 processor also featured a RISC core.

A translation unit dynamically translates x86 instructions into RISC86 instructions. These RISC86 instructions were designed specifically with direct support for the x86 architecture while obeying RISC performance principles. They are thus simpler and easier to execute than the complex x86 instructions.

This type of capability is another feature normally found only in P6 class processors. The Nx586 was discontinued after the merger with AMD, which then took the design for the successor Nx686 and released it as the AMD-K6.

AMD-K6 Series

The AMD-K6 processor is a high-performance sixth-generation processor that is physically installable in a P5 (Pentium) motherboard. It essentially was designed for AMD by NexGen and was first known as the Nx686. The NexGen version never appeared because it was purchased by AMD before the chip was due to be released.

The AMD-K6 delivers performance levels somewhere between the Pentium and Pentium II processor as a result of its unique hybrid design. Because it is designed to install in Socket 7, which is a fifth-generation processor socket and motherboard design, it can't quite perform as a true sixth-generation chip because the Socket 7 architecture severely limits cache and memory performance.

However, with this processor, AMD gave Intel a lot of competition in the low- to mid-range market, where the Pentium was still popular. The K6 processor contains an industry-standard, high-performance implementation of the new multimedia instruction set, enabling a high level of multimedia performance.

The K6-2 introduced an upgrade to MMX that AMD calls 3DNow!, which adds even more graphics and sound instructions. AMD designed the K6 processor to fit the low-cost, high-volume Socket 7 infrastructure. Initially, it used AMD's 0.35-micron, five-metal layer process technology; more recent variations used the 0.25-micron processor to increase production quantities because of reduced die size, as well as to decrease power consumption.

AMD-K6 processor technical features include:

  • Sixth-generation internal design, fifth-generation external interface

  • Internal RISC core, translates x86 to RISC instructions

  • Superscalar parallel execution units (seven)

  • Dynamic execution

  • Branch prediction

  • Speculative execution

  • Large 64KB L1 cache (32KB instruction cache plus 32KB write-back dual-ported data cache)

  • Built-in floating-point unit

  • Industry-standard MMX instruction support

  • System Management Mode

  • Ceramic pin grid array (CPGA) Socket 7 design

  • Manufactured using 0.35-micron and 0.25-micron, five-layer designs

The K6-2 adds the following:

  • Higher clock speeds

  • Higher bus speeds of up to 100MHz (Super7 motherboards)

  • 3DNow!; 21 new graphics and sound processing instructions

The K6-3 adds the following:

  • 256KB of on-die full-core speed L2 cache

The addition of the full-speed L2 cache in the K6-3 was significant. It enables the K6 series to fully compete with the Intel Pentium II processors and the Celeron processors based on the Pentium II. The 3DNow! capability added in the K6-2/3 was also exploited by newer graphics programs, making these processors ideal for lower-cost gaming systems.

The AMD-K6 processor architecture is fully x86 binary code compatible, which means it runs all Intel software, including MMX instructions. To make up for the lower L2 cache performance of the Socket 7 design, AMD beefed up the internal L1 cache to 64KB total, twice the size of the Pentium II or III.

This, plus the dynamic execution capability, enabled the K6 to outperform the Pentium and come close to the Pentium II and III in performance for a given clock rate. The K6-3 was even better with the addition of full-core speed L2 cache; however, this processor ran very hot and was discontinued after a relatively brief period.

Both the AMD-K5 and AMD-K6 processors are Socket 7 bus compatible. However, certain modifications might be necessary for proper voltage setting and BIOS revisions. To ensure reliable operation of the AMD-K6 processor, the motherboard must meet specific voltage requirements.

The AMD processors have specific voltage requirements. Most older split-voltage motherboards default to 2.8V Core/3.3V I/O, which is below specification for the AMD-K6 and could cause erratic operation. To work properly, the motherboard must have Socket 7 with a dual-plane voltage regulator supplying 2.9V or 3.2V (233MHz) to the CPU core voltage (Vcc2) and 3.3V for the I/O (Vcc3).

The voltage regulator must be capable of supplying up to 7.5A (9.5A for the 233MHz) to the processor. When used with a 200MHz or slower processor, the voltage regulator must maintain the core voltage within 145 mV of nominal (2.9V+/–145 mV). When used with a 233MHz processor, the voltage regulator must maintain the core voltage within 100 mV of nominal (3.2V+/–100 mV).

If the motherboard has a poorly designed voltage regulator that cannot maintain this performance, unreliable operation can result. If the CPU voltage exceeds the absolute maximum voltage range, the processor can be permanently damaged. Also note that the K6 can run hot.

Make sure your heatsink is securely fitted to the processor and that the thermally conductive grease or pad is properly applied. The motherboard must have an AMD-K6 processor-ready BIOS with support for the K6 built in. Award has that support in its March 1, 1997 or later BIOS; AMI had K6 support in any of its BIOS with CPU Module 3.31 or later; and Phoenix supports the K6 in version 4.0, release 6.0, or release 5.1 with build dates of 4/7/97 or later.

Because these specifications can be fairly complicated, AMD keeps a list of motherboards that have been verified to work with the AMD-K6 processor on its Web site. All the motherboards on that list have been tested to work properly with the AMD-K6.

So, unless these requirements can be verified elsewhere, it is recommended that you use only a motherboard from that list with the AMD-K6 processor. You can identify which AMD-K6 you have by looking at the markings on this chip, as shown in Figure below.

AMD-K6 processor markings.

Older motherboards achieve the 3.5x setting by setting jumpers for 1.5x. The 1.5x setting for older motherboards equates to a 3.5x setting for the AMD-K6 and newer Intel parts. Getting the 4x and higher setting requires a motherboard that controls three BF pins, including BF2. Older motherboards can control only two BF pins.

These settings usually are controlled by jumpers on the motherboard. Consult your motherboard documentation to see where they are and how to set them for the proper multiplier and bus speed settings. Unlike Cyrix and some of the other Intel competitors, AMD is a manufacturer and a designer.

Therefore, it designs and builds its chips in its own fabs. Similar to Intel, AMD has migrated to 0.25-micron process technology and beyond (the AMD Athlon XP is built on a 0.13-micron process). The original K6 has 8.8 million transistors and is built on a 0.35-micron, five-layer process.

The die is 12.7mm on each side, or about 162 square mm. The K6-3 uses a 0.25-micron process and incorporates 21.3 million transistors on a die only 10.9mm on each side, or about 118 square mm. Because of its performance and compatibility with the Socket 7 interface, the K6 series is often looked at as an excellent processor upgrade for motherboards using older Pentium or Pentium MMX processors.

Although they do work in Socket 7, the AMD-K6 processors have different voltage and bus speed requirements from the Intel processors. Before attempting any upgrades, you should check the board documentation or contact the manufacturer to see whether your board meets the necessary requirements. In some cases, a BIOS upgrade also is necessary.