AMD Finally Answers the Challenge with Phenom: Four Cores on One Die

After about ten months of watching somebody else marching ahead as the all-around leader in both price and performance, AMD this morning stopped making purely defensive plays, and at last launched its counter-offensive. It will be introducing a new CPU architecture for the second half of this year, aimed at performance-hungry customers perhaps willing to pay a premium.

With the Phenom processor series, which will include a single-die quad-core and a double-quad-core package, AMD will soon be managing three consumer desktop CPU lines, as Athlon moves into the midrange, mainstream space, and Phenom assumes the company's high-performance mantle from Athlon FX.

It is perhaps the last trump card in AMD's hand, and the company may have no choice but to play it now: Since its earliest entry into the multicore space, AMD has used an architecture which moved the memory controller onto the die itself, eliminating the need for a front-side bus architecture, simplifying the chipset, reducing power consumption, and expediting memory transfer through the HyperTransport bus.

Up to now, AMD has delivered so-called "quad core" by way of a dual-socket design for Athlon FX dual-cores. But with the new Phenom architecture in place, AMD can pull four cores into the same die, letting them share a memory controller and an L3 cache while delegating separate L2s and L1s for each core. It's AMD's on-die memory controller design which has been the company's hallmark for the last three years, and it will rely on that design yet again to pull it through.

But as Phenom comes into being, AMD will be a whole manufacturing process generation behind Intel, which came from behind last year in stunning fashion to wrest back not only the price/performance crown but huge chunks of both market share and consumer confidence.

As AMD is just now moving into the 65 nm generation beginning in the second half of this year, Intel is gearing up for 45 nm retooling in the same timeframe, and appears further along in the adoption of breakthrough HK+MG transistor technology - an advance which AMD partner IBM claimed to have discovered on exactly the same day, though which may not be ready for AMD until later next year.

So the challenge before AMD will be to win back the hearts of the enthusiasts, the performance buyers, and the system builders and OEMs, while at the same time keeping their minds from getting too curious about the massive missing performance margin that used to distinguish it from its chief competitor. As BetaNews learned from AMD in recent days, the Phenom campaign this time will be less about statistics and proof points, and more about feeling - about whether the product is marketed well enough for users to feel satisfied, even if it turns out the performance edge over Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad is negligible.

"You're going to see more consumer-like marketing come from us than you've traditionally seen in the past," stated Ian McNaughton, Phenom's senior product manager, in an interview with BetaNews. "You're going to hear us talking about our products in a different way than we traditionally have, and it's not going to be, we're sending a data sheet. It's going to be more terms like, 'Exquisitely powerful, intensely visual."'

Indeed, that's the new slogan for Phenom technology that AMD will begin "beta-testing," if you will, today. "When we look at our architecture as it stands today, with four cores, it starts to really shine," McNaughton continued. "The actual benefit of having our architecture versus our competitor's architecture starts to really become apparent."

This is the endgame AMD wants to see, at least for this round: It wants its new Phenom processor line to feel right, to give the appearance of smoothness and sure-footedness, in an everyday work setting or in a hard-driving gaming environment. Maybe it won't win every benchmark - at least not any more, not in the competitive market AMD helped catalyze. But AMD wants it to have that "certain something." And if it tries too hard to quantify it, to measure it, to pronounce it 2% or 12% better than Intel in some obscure contest, it could just lose it anyway.

"When you look at the R&D budgets of the three players in the industry - Intel, nVidia, and AMD - it's unrealistic for anyone to believe that any of the companies are going to be in a leadership position from an absolute performance perspective for a very long period of time," admitted Henri Richard, AMD's senior vice president for sales and marketing, in a webcast a few weeks ago.

"I think that the game has changed when AMD came out with AMD64 architecture, and launched Opteron. Until then, Intel had this almost undisputed monopolistic position. It was challenged in 2000 by Athlon, then they came back with Pentium, and then when we came with AMD64 and the Opteron processor, people thought, 'Well, this is just a repeat of the same game.' And I'm telling you, the game has changed a lot. It changed a lot because we merged with ATI, and so we now have a complete platform."

Next: Making the case for superiority in a neck-and-neck race

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