Can AMD Still Compete in High-End Chips?

PC enthusiasts love competition--especially at the high end of the hardware spectrum. When a company launches a new flagship desktop CPU or graphics chip, we throw ourselves into the benchmarking minutiae, looking to see how it compares with its most current competitor. To us, this is fun.

Of late, unfortunately, we haven't had much to sink our teeth into. On the CPU side, AMD hasn't had a competitive high-end product since Intel launched its Core 2 Duo processors in July 2006. In graphics, similarly, nVidia has enjoyed a stranglehold on the top spot for a long time, as AMD-owned ATI's recent Radeon HD 2000 line launch did not produce a high-end competitor to nVidia's GeForce 8800.

AMD's inability to push the envelope has had some people suggesting it has abandoned the enthusiasts who helped put it on the map so as to focus on the more lucrative mainstream. Clearly, AMD acquired ATI to better contend with Intel in mainstream markets, where vendors like to buy all-in-one packages that have a CPU, a chip set, and graphics.

However, I think it is shortsighted to assume AMD will give up on the high end. Here's why: Enthusiasts may account for only a small percentage of sales, but we're the ones everybody else comes to for buying advice. Add in the large number of enthusiasts who also happen to work in IT departments (and are responsible for purchasing huge quantities of mainstream PCs), and you begin to understand why AMD must be more competitive at the top.

AMD's Fall From Grace

Just how bad is AMD's situation on the high-performance front? Kelt Reeves, president of high-end PC purveyor Falcon Northwest, says his company doesn't even stock AMD processors. He'll special-order one for you, but he says performance-minded customers--who bought AMD almost exclusively prior to the Core 2 Duo launch--just aren't interested.

So what must AMD do to become a contender again? For starters, it's time for the company to ditch the aging K8 architecture. It served the company well--so well it forced Intel back to the drawing board with stunning results--but now we need to see something new.

And something new is coming: AMD's 10h architecture will power new server chips (code-named Barcelona) that are due shortly, as well as new desktop chips (code-named Agena) that are due by the end of 2007.

Apparently AMD also decided that a year of whupping by the Core 2 Duo has tarnished the Athlon name: The new top-of-the-line CPU is called Phenom.

AMD says Phenom will ship in dual- and quad-core flavors. A key advantage of the quad-core Phenom is that all four cores are on one die, AMD says. Intel's current quad CPUs are essentially two dual cores linked by a frontside bus.

AMD's approach certainly seems more elegant, but we won't know whether the new design is really a plus until we see test results. Meanwhile, for the truly hard-core, the company has also previewed a new enthusiast platform, code-named FASN8, that supports two quad-core Phenoms.

Intel isn't sitting still: The company will soon launch its next desktop chip, a Penryn family member code-named Yorkfield. Based on an updated version of the highly successful Core 2 Duo architecture, these quad-core chips will feature improvements such as larger cache sizes and new SSE instructions. They won't easily surrender Intel's crown.

I'm not picking sides. As an enthusiast, I just want the fight to be interesting again.

Tom Mainelli has owned Intel and AMD CPUs as well as nVidia and ATI GPUs, so don't call him a fanboy. You can drop him a line at GeekTech@pcworld.com.

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