If you can't beat 'em, just rewrite the rule book. Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE:AMD) has been playing that game for years, and is going at it again.

It was a dark and stormy night ...
Once upon a time, computer chips were measured by their clock speed alone. But AMD had a hard time measuring up to faster chips from Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) on that simple basis, so AMD came up with a new rating system for the Athlon processor. An Athlon 2000+ was supposedly just as good as a 2-gigahertz Pentium 4, in spite of churning through incoming instructions at a slower frequency.

That time, it was easy to see how the ratings system could benefit the end user: You could compare and contrast chips from Intel and AMD on a nearly apples-to-apples basis, despite the many differences in their internal design. This was the golden age for AMD -- the company was winning performance showdowns and taking market share from its much larger rival, and this state of affairs continued for years.

Snap back to reality
But now, Intel has chewed up AMD's old performance lead with powerful new processors that share many advanced design points with AMD's best. In the meantime, processors on both sides of the fence are available in myriad flavors, each with its own benefits and compromises, and the naming schemes have become odious, cumbersome, and opaque.

Intel's latest effort to simplify the name game only confused me more. AMD fought back with more new product lines, muddling the issue even further. If you want a new Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) or Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) system today, you can't make an informed decision without knowing something about cache sizes, clock speeds, multi-core chips, and Hyperthreading. Good luck with that.

So AMD wants to over-simplify the chip-picking process now. In AMD's new marketing scheme, system builders are told to slap a cheerful AMD Vision sticker on their machines. It comes in Basic, Premium, and Ultimate flavors; Vision Black will show up later and be aimed at high-performance enthusiasts. Don't worry about the technical specs of the processor -- this is a whole-system label that “communicates the value of the whole system” and aims to show the capabilities of the combined computer system parts. It seems to place particular emphasis on the combined power of the central and graphics processor, a nod to the company’s Fusion platform and a scheme rival NVIDIA (NASDAQ:NVDA) would probably endorse.

This sounds great for making an impression on Luddites who really don't know what they want. But there is very little information available on what these ratings actually mean. Sure, I suppose a Vision Ultimate system could play high-definition videos and theater-quality surround sound. But how is that different from the Premium level? And will Basic simply indicate that there's an AMD chip inside that can't do anything particularly impressive? Does it meet any kind of minimum requirements?

Mum's the word. We do know that AMD is timing the release of the Vision labels to coincide with Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) releasing Windows 7 in the wild. Windows comes in different, labeled flavors as well, so perhaps there's some sort of correlation between the Microsoft label and AMD's scheme. Perhaps. But we don't know.

The Athlon name game was different. Back then, AMD had the upper hand and simply needed to convey superior performance to the consumer. This time, Intel wears the performance crown and AMD has to play a new game. The underdog wins head-to-head comparisons on occasion, but only if you take things like power draws and street price into account. And the high-end Opteron processors formerly known as Istanbul can beat Intel's best under some circumstances -- but only because they pack more processor cores onto the chip. AMD can't brag about its performance advantage like it did in the past, but while the previous Athlon naming scheme created a way to focus on company strengths, this new scheme is more likely to simply confuse customers in new, unexpected ways.

OK, wise guy -- what would you suggest, then?
Maybe I'm jumping the gun on this confusion a little bit. Windows 7 comes to your local Target on October 22, so AMD has a few weeks to sort out exactly what it means by all these fancy Vision levels.

In general terms, it's a great idea to present consumers with a simple way to pick their processor poison. A stalled buyer ain't buying. But I think AMD took too close a shave with Occam's razor and oversimplified things. Now, the customer isn't confused by endless information -- instead, there's simply not enough. Is it worse than pitting the Athlon II X2 250 against a Phenom II X3 720, and so on? Maybe not -- but a little bit of nuance would have gone a long way. Four mystery tiers is simply not good enough.

I've said it before and I'll say it again -- I love AMD, but the marketing department is not doing the company any favors. The Netflix headquarters is right down the road, and those guys know a thing or two about selling products in a tiered arrangement. Give them a call, OK?

And I'm sure that you, dear reader, have a few choice words for AMD yourself. Share the wealth in the comments box below.