updated 12:00 am EST, Thu January 8, 2009
AMD Phenom II
AMD marked the start of CES with the formal debut of the Phenom II, its first mainstream 45 nanometer processor. The upgrade is based on the same core "Shanghai" architecture as recent Opterons and gives a roughly 20 percent speed boost over the previous-best 2.6GHz chip through changes that involve an optimized design with more instructions handled per clock, 4MB of total extra cache, and support for up to the same 1,333MHz DDR3 memory as rival systems from Intel. The design is also now much more tolerant of high clock speeds and will run up to 3GHz in stock trim.
Reflecting a newer gaming focus, AMD is bundling a new, simplified overclocking utility with its highest-end model and touts an exceptionally large amount of headroom for higher speeds. The chip is capable of as much as 4GHz just on fan-based cooling, the company claims. Exotic overclocking using liquid nitrogen can get the system up to 6GHz or higher; Core i7 and most older hardware generations can't reach this point as they are physicaly limited by a "cold bug" that prevents them from dropping below a certain temperature, according to AMD representative Simon Solotko.
When asked why the system sits below Intel's 3.2GHz despite the room for faster clock speeds, the official explains it as a need to leave room for the chip to periodically run out of specification without trouble. It's nonetheless widely believed by some observers that the move is also a deliberate attempt to avoid prompting a clock speed race with Intel that would see both companies ramp speeds up to their practical limits.
The design is also reportedly as much as 30 to 40 percent more power efficient at peak load. despite its 125W ceiling, and is meant to team up with a 790GX mainboard chipset as part of a combined platform nicknamed "Dragon." The newer union not only provides a faster 3.6GHz or faster HyperTransport (interface) bus but also better integrated graphics that can be used in a Hybrid CrossFire mode to shut down dedicated graphics cards to save energy with lighter loads.
The socket design is uniquely backwards compatible and runs on many existing 780-series chipsets using DDR2 memory simply by applying a firmware update. AMD touts that users have the option of upgrading to 790GX and newer designs to get any performance benefits from DDR3 and other architecture changes without having to replace the processor.
AMD is making its initial Phenom II chips available today and is introducing a 2.8GHz Phenom II X4 920 at $235 in large batches meant for PC makers. The flagship 3GHz 940 model comes unlocked for overclocking and will cost $275 in similar amounts. Retail kits are likely to cost more.
The introduction is crucial for AMD, which has struggled to preserve its competitiveness with Intel and has had to drop its forecasts for this season by a full 25 percent as Intel maintains a current performance lead in both desktops and notebooks. Phenom II should not only bring AMD back into competitiveness with performance but should also win out on price, according to Solotko: a typical mainboard for the new hardware from GigaByte or one of its rivals costs about $140, or roughly half the minimum cost of entry for a Core i7 mainboard.
Solotko also dismisses notions that Intel's Hyperthreading, which can sometimes run two program threads on a single core, is necessarily better for gaming; he argues instead that a combined platform that focuses on the efficiency of the core chips, as well as using recent video cards' support for general purpose computing, should be faster overall.
"Throwing threads at games won't solve the problem," he says, alluding to Intel's technique.