Wednesday, July 1, 2009

With No Phenom II FX in Sight, Does AMD Need Six-Core Microprocessors for Desktops?

AMD does not seem to be planning to release ultra-fast quad-core processors to compete against Intel Core i7. But the world's second largest maker of x86 chips does have six-core microprocessors that are capable of operating on rather high frequencies and that can be strong competitors on the high-end desktops/workstations markets.

Back last year sources familiar with the plans of Advanced Micro Devices said that the company would release AMD Phenom II FX microprocessors with increased clock-speeds targeting performance-demanding customers in mid-2009. AMD still has not launched such chips, but decided to handpick several AMD Phenom II Black Edition TWKR microprocessors for “professional” overclockers so to let them set records in order to improve AMD Phenom branding in general. As reported previously, there will be no TWKR processors released commercially. But maybe there is no need to release a fast quad-core chip, but to roll-out a six-core central processing unit (CPU)?

Although the improvements of AMD Phenom II X4 microprocessors allowed AMD to compete more or less successfully against Intel Corp.’s previous-generation Intel Core 2 Quad processors, the latest Intel Core i7 is still unbeatable in the vast majority of cases. Once Microsoft Corp. launches its Windows 7 with DirectX 11 application programming interface, the gap between Core i7 and Phenom II X4 will start to get even wider due to more efficient usage of multi-threading capabilities of microprocessors by the next-gen software. Thanks to HyperThreading technology Intel’s Core i7 can process eight threads at once using four physical cores, whereas quad-core AMD’s Phenom can process only four. If currently the advantages of HyperThreading can be observed in select cases, with the release of new software it will become more obvious.

With six physical cores AMD will be able to demonstrate rather high performance in multi-tasking and applications that need to execute numerous threads at once. Moreover, as future video games that rely on DirectX 11 start to arrive, the advantages provided by six-core Istanbul processors, which AMD currently ships onto server markets, will be even more apparent, even despite of the fact that current six-core chips do not officially support DDR3 memory (it does not mean there is no controller inside, it may be disabled since there is no infrastructure for multi-socket AMD servers that supports DDR3) and have to rely on DDR2. At present AMD only ships six-core Opteron chips at 2.20GHz, 2.40GHz and 2.40GHz clock-speeds, but it should not be that hard to pick up chips that can function at 2.80GHz or 3.0GHz.

In fact, AMD will have to release its own six-core processor for desktops and workstations early next year anyway to compete against Intel’s code-named Gulftown chip that will not only have six processing engines, but will also be based on the improved code-named Westmere micro-architecture. It will be very hard for AMD to compete against both quad-core and six-core Core i7 processors with just quad-core AMD Phenom II X4.

If AMD launches its Istanbul chips onto the high-end desktop/workstation market now, Intel will not be able to respond quickly: although the giant chipmaker has six-core Intel Xeon "Dunnington" chip for multi-processor servers, it does not have built-in memory controller and is absolutely incompatible with the Core i7 infrastructure.

So, what will AMD do? Handpick fast AMD Phenom II FX processors for commercial launch to compete against high-end Intel Core i7 offerings, introduce six-core AMD Phenom II X6 chips or just wait till the larger rival makes its move?

AMD's official position is that it does not plan to offer six-core microprocessors for single-socket systems at the moment.


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