In 1999, while AMD was suffering one of the darkest periods in its history, the financially strapped semiconductor maker needed to get the word out about its new Pentium II-compatible processor, Athlon. So it did what any serious company would do: it enlisted the aid of PC gamers, overclockers and build-it-yourself enthusiasts.

AMD established an inclusive policy of supplying Web publications with processors and systems. It reached out to selected small and startup sites that were snubbed by other hardware vendors. For many of these sites, it was AMD’s willingness to provide review hardware, no strings attached, that encouraged Intel, nVidia, and other vendors to join the party.

Web publishing pioneers Anand Lal Shimpi and Thomas Pabst were already one-upping print publications with timely and painstakingly thorough benchmarks and reviews. There was a fair amount of religious fervour on the Web sites -- those with large followings and those just starting out, where hope for AMD’s success coloured test results and analysis. But over time, especially when Intel started matching AMD’s level of cooperation with hardware sites, balance was restored, and races were usually called fairly.

Being friendly with these sites wasn’t always a picnic for Intel or AMD. Enthusiast sites revealed the significant design trade-offs Intel accepted to raise Pentium 4’s clock speed. They described how to turbocharge Intel’s dirt-cheap Celeron processor and how to unlock its concealed capability of operating in a dual-processor configuration. AMD took its share of hits as well. It got badly dinged for its persistent heat problems - a vendor called KryoTech sold an Athlon system that was cooled by the guts of a refrigerator - and AMD couldn’t keep photos and write-ups of its unreleased CPUs off the Web.

Now all the respected hardware sites have ads, staffs, blogs, and affiliate programs. And they never miss a trade show no matter what country it’s in. AMD still works closely with Web publications on 32-bit Athlon XP and desktop Athlon 64 and Athlon 64 FX-series processors. The company will always sell the processors that, with other vendors’ motherboards, power custom-built systems that outperform the fastest desktop in Dell’s catalog and cost what Dell charges for last year’s model.

Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Sun Microsystems give AMD the clout it needs to sell Opterons, so AMD’s top-end server chips rarely get reviewed on hardware sites as components for enthusiasts. It’s the first time AMD has dialled down its relationships with hardware sites. But those sites may enter a new era, as IT and professional technologists look for fresh approaches to evaluating servers. If that happens, AMD will be there.