AMD Kicks Off Quad-Core Phenom Chips

Just when system builders thought it was safe to settle down and build systems, here comes AMD with another huge product launch, the Phenom microprocessor and the Spider platform for high-performance gaming systems. Released Monday, Phenom is the first quad-core desktop chip from Advanced Micro Devices, while Spider is the first real CPU-GPU-chipset combo built from the ground up by AMD since its acquisition of graphics house ATI last year.

If you're keeping score at home, major new product releases from chipmakers in just the past few weeks include: AMD's Phenom, Spider, the ATI Radeon HD 3800 GPU series, a stream computing chip called the FireStream 9170, and the first quad-core Opteron server chips; Intel's first Penryn-class server and desktop chips built with its new 45nm process, as well as an upgrade to its vPro desktop processors; and Nvidia's GeForce 7 chipsets.

And that's just the big stuff from the main x86 houses, leaving out the various toolkits, compilers and libraries each has released in recent weeks.

AMD's Spider launch starts with Phenom. Approaching a year since Intel released its first quad-core desktop product, the smaller chipmaker finally has one of its own. Phenom comes on the heels of September's launch of AMD's first quad-core server chip. Unlike Barcelona, though, Phenom isn't a codename -- it's a new brand, replacing Athlon as the latest and greatest desktop CPU from the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based chipmaker.

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AMD's native quad-core micro-architecture gives Phenom certain advantages over Intel's Core 2 Quad desktop processors, particularly in areas of memory and power usage. The only question is whether Intel's move to hafnium with its 45nm process makes up enough ground in those areas to nullify that advantage as both chipmakers ramp up their new products in the coming months. With AMD set to move to the 45nm process next year -- Phenom is a 65nm product -- and Intel unveiling new micro-architecture, codenamed Nehalem, that will look a lot like AMD's, each chipmaker's relative advantages over the other look to be narrow for some time to come, so long as AMD can keep pace with its bigger competitor.

The first Phenom releases slot nicely into the value bin for quad-core desktop chips. The two chips AMD launched Monday are mainstream products that compete on price and performance with similar chips from Intel, said Velocity Micro's Randy Copeland.

"I think they've got plenty of room to continue ramping. But this is a mainstream product, maybe aimed at the high end of the mainstream customer base, somebody who's still looking for value. We launched the Penryn [Core 2 Extreme QX9650] processor last week, but that's really targeted at a different customer," said Copeland, president of the Richmond, Virg.-based system builder.

The Phenom 9500 has a clock speed of 2.2GHz and is priced at $251 for Monday's launch. The Phenom 9600 clocks in at 2.3GHz and costs $283. Chips clocking 2.4GHz will be ready by January, 2.6GHz is coming in Q1 2008 and 3.0GHz will arrive on shelves in the first half of next year, said Patrick Moorhead, AMD's VP of advanced marketing for its Worldwide Marketing Group.

"In the second week of December, there will also be a 2.3GHz unlocked part available, a real channel kicker. We did a couple of black editions with Athlon, and while this won't be a black edition, it will be completely unlocked," Moorhead said.

Also coming soon is the Phenom FX-80 series for high-end gaming systems and the triple-core Phenom 8000 series, the latter in Q1 of next year.

According to AMD, both the Phenom 9500 and 9600 draw on 95W of power, have 2MB of dedicated L2 cache, 2MB of L3 cache, and 3600MHz of bi-directional HyperTransport speed. That's version 3.0 of AMD's HyperTransport technology, providing bandwidth for high-definition 1080P video playback. Other features include 128-bit floating point units, improved branch prediction and a 128-bit dual-channel integrated memory controller supporting up to DDR2 1066, when that technology gets JEDEC approval and DDR2-1066 specs are released. As per AMD's native multi-core design, all cores, the memory controller and a separate I/O interface commune through a high-performance crossbar switch.

Next: Along Came A Spider

Spider is the codename for AMD's new 7-Series chipsets, designed for loading up as many as four GPUs to build Phenom-based media-intensive systems. Spider also encompasses the new ATI Radeon HD 3800 GPU series, which Velocity Micro's Copeland characterizes as "pound-for-pound, a great fighting card."

The first 7-Series chipset released is the 790FX, made available Monday. The 780G is coming in February and the 780G for notebooks, codenamed Puma, is projected to arrive in May. The 790FX will be priced in the $150-$250 range, according to AMD.

The chipset is tuned for Phenom and ATI Radeon GPUs. Slide in as many as four ATI Radeon HD 3800 series GPUs on Spider and get ready for 'octalview' gaming -- eight monitors' and 42 PCI Express lanes' worth of explosions and killing. Spider's other features include HyperTransport 3.0, PCI Express 2.0, and overclocking with AMD's new OverDrive software interface, featuring Novice, Advanced and Automated performance tuning modes

AMD's Moorhead said Spider is being launched completely through its custom system builder channel and direct DIY customers, with larger OEMs not expected to come out with products until January. Asked about apparent inventory problems that have affected AMD's quad-core Opteron ramp-up, he said no such issues would affect Phenom.

"We'll have full availability for the holiday selling cycle. Full supplies for Phenom, for the 790 chipset, and for the new Radeon. The Radeon had the first initial massive pop, but we're re-supplying the channel. We've got e-tailers taking orders today, and custom system builders who are talking about having new [Spider-based] systems leaving Thursday," Moorhead said.

System builders like Copeland didn't foresee supplies of AMD's new products being a problem.

"We got 100 percent of our request. We have not seen any allocation problem with AMD," he said.

Kelt Reeves, president of gaming system specialist Falcon Northwest, said he'd heard there was some limited availability for the Phenom 9600 chip, but that the 9500 and all the other Spider parts were widely available.

"ATI has had a history [of thin inventory problems], but the new Radeon is widely available. With Phenom, we're also fine. AMD told us there was plenty of stock on the 9500, but it was little bit limited on the 9600," he said.

Calling his Medford, Ore.-based company "bullish" on the potential of Spider, Reeves was particularly impressed with Spider's Cool'n'Quiet 2.0 technology. That's how AMD describes the overclocking headroom and lower noise levels gained in systems thanks to native core architecture performance-per-watt gains.

"Our biggest focus is the 'quad-fire', which is four Radeon HD 3850 GPUs. It's Nvidia's SLI times two. The really interesting advantage of Radeon cards is the Cool'n'Quiet on a 55 nanometer-process chip," Reeves said.

"Of course, the proof is in the pudding. Spider looks like it should be killer, but it all depends on how the drivers come together. I'm bullish on the potential but I can't take that too far yet."