AMD has pre-empted Intel's mid-year product launches with four new Athlon 64 processors announced today.

The Athlon 64 3800+, 3700+, and 3500+ are faster versions of the mainstream Athlon 64 product family. The Athlon FX-53 is a specialized Athlon 64 chip that caters to a small group of PC users that demand the most performance available.

"AMD offers the highest performing PC processors today - hands down," said Marty Seyer, general manager of its Microprocessor Business Unit. He also drew attention to the chip's new virus protection feature that ought to protect against virus attacks when combined with Microsoft's forthcoming XP SP2 update.

The new processors connect directly to the memory controller and I/O to the central processor unit, improving overall system performance and efficiency, the company said. This helps eliminate bottlenecks and provide up to 1600MHz, while Intel can only offer 800MHz at the moment.

AMD changed the packaging technology for the Athlon 64 3800+, the 3500+ and the Athlon FX-53. Those processors now use 939 pins, unlike previous versions of the Athlon 64 family that used 754 pins and previous FX chips that used 940 pins.

The pins on a processor connect the chip to the wiring of the motherboard. In order for the Athlon 64 processors to take advantage of dual-channel DDR memory modules, AMD needed to increase the number of pins to accommodate the wider memory channels.

The new Athlon 64 processors will help AMD compete against faster Prescott Pentium 4 processors and the Grantsdale chipset expected from Intel later this year. Grantsdale will come with support for the new PCI Express interconnect standard that will help improve system performance.

The performance of AMD's new processors should be very competitive, but obtaining an exact comparison of the performance of each product line is a difficult undertaking, said Kevin Krewell, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report. "It's a real horse race between the two," Krewell said. Each company can point to certain applications in which its processor outperforms the competition, he said.

The new chips should also help AMD maintain its recent success in the retail market. HP and Gateway's eMachines division have prominently featured AMD desktops and notebooks in their retail channels. Intel still leads the overall market by a wide margin, but AMD is gaining ground in categories outside the value PC segment where it has seen the most success, according to analysts.

The Athlon 64 processors can run both 32-bit and 64-bit applications on a PC or workstation with a 64-bit operating system. There are 64-bit versions of Linux available for PCs with the processor, but very few 64-bit desktop applications are currently available.

The four chips are available immediately worldwide. In quantities of 1,000 units, the FX-53 costs $799; the 3800+ $720; the 3700+ $710; and the 3500+ $500.