AMD: With Vista, Time to Re-evaluate Price/Performance

Since last July, when Intel introduced its Core 2 Duo processors and, perhaps more importantly, effectuated a complete U-turn in its microarchitecture, experts and enthusiasts in computing have judged Intel to have regained the performance lead from AMD in CPUs, which includes the lead in providing processor performance per dollar.

But in its multi-faceted campaign to wrest back the title of hero, if not yet leader, in consumers' minds, AMD is leveraging its fusion with ATI and ATI's cooperation with Microsoft to make a bold new case for itself: Now that the Windows Vista era is upon us, AMD's executives and managers believe the time has come to throw out the old XP-based benchmarks, and re-evaluate AMD's current line of processors using more updated metrics.

"Those tests absolutely have got to be redone. Anything that touches 3D or video needs to be redone," AMD Vice President for Global Marketing Pat Moorhead told BetaNews, responding to a question as to whether comprehensive performance comparisons like Tom's Hardware Guide CPU charts will remain valid, in the wake of performance improvements Moorhead claimed users will see when deploying Vista-ready drivers in Vista-based AMD- and Intel-based systems.

Such tests have been used to compile detailed price/performance evaluations across-the-board, which since July have graphically demonstrated Intel reclaiming the performance advantage.

Moorhead believes Vista will improve the performance of both existing and future AMD processors, as well as Intel, though not by the same margin. One advantage he says AMD has is with regards to Non-Uniform Memory Access (NUMA), which enables multiple cores to have simultaneous access to memory by zoning that memory such that such accesses don't collide.

"Specifically, we have an integrated memory controller, and therefore Vista actually does NUMA better," Moorhead told BetaNews. "So our multitasking performance actually will improve with Vista because of NUMA, and the more cores we have, the better that gets. For instance, our Quad FX product actually runs better on Vista than it does on XP because it has four cores, four memory controllers, and a crossbar to connect those [components] together."

But the bigger improvement will be in the graphics department, Moorhead said, where vastly improved driver architectures will drive a visibly noticeable wedge of difference between AMD/ATI and Intel in graphics-related functionality. Specifically, he likes to draw distinctions between AMD/ATI systems and Intel integrated graphics on Intel motherboards (nVidia remains an AMD partner in its Better By Design program).

"Hardware matters for Vista, but software obviously does as well, and drivers are part of that software," Moorhead remarked. "One of the built-in advantages that we have for mainstream graphics is the fact that we've got an entire team hammering out graphics at the high end. We can leverage that code on the integrated solution. So for instance, in The Sims 2, the water looks like water, has transparency, has translucency, you can see rainbows and the reflections of bridges; and on the Intel solution, you can't see any of that. The hardware might be capable, but the software isn't."

The whole concept of multi-core processing introduces the possibility of parallelism that doesn't incur noticeable performance hits. If parallelism is done right, AMD argues, users should be able to run multiple tasks simultaneously without the processor appearing to be burdened - and thus, without the user feeling like she's burdened.

To that end, AMD's argument continues, current performance benchmarks may be inadequate in addressing the advantages of one manufacturer's parallelism architecture over another's. For example, one benchmark used in determining relative performance is a transcoding test, where a movie in one format is translated into another format, with the system timed with a stopwatch. Transcoding is typically a background process - not something a real user would do under a watchful eye and a ticking stopwatch, unless he happens to be one of these benchmark testers himself.

Multicore processing for both brands, AMD argues, changes the whole nature of laborious tasks that real-world users would relegate to the background. If one brand of processor performs a typical background test in the foreground better than another brand, it doesn't mean that it will also be better if both processors were also playing a 3D game.

AMD product marketing manager David Schwarzbach argued this point with regard to how his company's newly released Quad FX platform, with motherboards that pair up dual-core Athlon FX processors, could provide performance advantages that linear benchmarking doesn't see.

"The scalability of the Quad FX platform - the fact that you can plug in quad-core processors into each of two sockets when they're available from AMD for an eight-core solution - is certainly going to be another very important milestone leap for AMD in overall performance," Schwarzbach told BetaNews. "So it's really dependent upon the nature of the apps that are being deployed, how many of them run simultaneously, and really today's benchmarks don't do a good job of reflecting the complex user environment. They're more linear, they're more sequential in the way they measure performance, rather than running in high-parallelism environments."

Schwarzbach said if it were up to him, he'd have performance laboratories concentrate on tests that replicate environments where real-world users perform what AMD is now calling mega-tasking: a type of multitasking where the user isn't just running multiple tasks on his computer (which now takes place 100% of the time, on the granular level) but is actually doing more than one thing with the computer simultaneously. If laboratories could devise such tests, and devise them for Vista, then Schwarzbach believes the performance gap between Intel and AMD processors on XP might be closed, if not reversed.

But don't credit AMD, said Pat Moorhead. It's Vista that changes the game. "The ability to multitask, to do things at the same time, is fundamentally, architecturally better on Vista," he told us. "It's smoother, it feels better. When you're doing multiple things at the same time, it is smoother. I actually like the presentation of pictures in My Pictures better [in Vista] than XP, and I don't know what it is exactly that makes that feat happen, but it's fundamentally better."

Everyday users will notice such differences with everyday tasks, Moorhead said, like flipping through a folder of digital photos. Meanwhile, enthusiasts and system builders will be the ones with the stopwatches and the Excel spreadsheets, and for them, the metrics may be a little skewed.

"We are certainly in a neck-and-neck race with our competitors for the performance crown," David Schwarzbach reminded us. However, he believes, "the absolute performance crown seems to be an obsession on the part of analysts and the press, that represents a very attractive part of the market, and certainly one that we embrace with both arms, but it doesn't tell the full story of the business."

Next: AMD gambles on the enthusiast segment, and the "halo effect."

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