Phenom II: AMD pulls closer

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AMD Phenom II: AMD Pulls Closer

January 8, 2008 by Lawrence Lee

The release of AMD's Phenom X4 quad-core processors in November of 2007 met with very little fanfare. Intel had been first to market with their Core 2 Quad CPUs a full 10 months earlier, and despite those extra months, AMD only managed to squeeze 2.3GHz out of their fastest X4 chip at the time, the X4 9600. The X4 9600 also performed rather poorly compared to the venerable Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600, despite only a small difference in clock speed (100MHz). It was also very power inefficient.

At the time, many people questioned whether anyone need four cores, since most applications didn't perform any better with four cores compared to two (this is still largely the case today, though less so). So, most users opted for the better performing dual cores from Intel, and professionals and hardcore enthusiasts who could afford the best went with Core 2 Quad.

AMD would eventually get their Phenom X4's up to 2.6GHz at the cost of even higher power consumption, though they still underperformed compared to Intel's line-up. They also released a line of triple-core processors that met with very little success. While AMD floundered, Intel kept pushing, continually cranking out faster dual and quad core CPUs, culminating in the release of their new Core i7 platform two months ago.

AMD Phenom II

So here we are, at the dawn of another AMD processor launch, this one dubbed Phenom II, code-name Deneb, and honestly we have our fingers crossed. AMD needs a win, and the timing is perfect. Though Intel clearly has the performance crown with their Core i7 platform, it is an expensive transition, and end-users wouldn't mind a cheaper alternative. AMD doesn't need to have the absolute best performing desktop chip in the world, they simply need to be competitive and cost-effective, two characteristics with which they used to be synonymous.

AMD Phenom II X4 940 and 920 Processor Specifications:
Processor Frequency X4 940 (Black Edition) = 3.0GHz
X4 920 = 2.8GHz
L1 Cache Sizes 64K of L1 instruction and 64K of L1 data cache per core (512KB total L1 per processor)
L2 Cache Sizes 512KB of L2 data cache per core (2MB total L2 per processor)
L3 Cache Size 6MB (shared)
Memory Controller Type Integrated 128-bit wide memory controller *
Memory Controller Speed Up to 1.8GHz with Dual Dynamic Power Management
Types of Memory Supported Support for unregistered DIMMs up to PC2 8500 (DDR2-1066MHz)
Memory Bandwidth Up to 17.1GB
HyperTransport 3.0 Link One 16-bit/16-bit link @ up to 3.6GHz full duplex (1.8GHz x2)
HyperTransport 3.0 Bandwidth Up to 14.4GB/s
Total Processor Bandwidth Up to 31.5 GB/s total bandwidth
Packaging Socket AM2+ 940-pin organic micro pin grid array (micro-PGA)
Fab location Fab 36 wafer fabrication facilities in Dresden, Germany
Process Technology 45-nanometer DSL SOI (silicon-on-insulator) technology
Approximate Transistor count ~ 758 million (45nm)
Approximate Die Size 258 mm2 (45nm)
Max Ambient Case Temp 62° Celsius
Nominal Voltage 0.875 - 1.5 Volts
Max TDP 125 Watts
*NOTE MC configurable for dual 64-bit channels for simultaneous read/writes

Phenom II is an improvement over its predecessor in many ways. First off, it is manufactured with a smaller fabrication process (45nm), allowing more circuitry to fit on the same die. This also typically decreases power consumption and results in higher operating frequencies. Indeed, clock speeds have received a nice bump — the two Phenom II models released at launch, the X4 920 and 940, are clocked at 2.66GHz and 3.0GHz respectively. AMD also claims they execute more instructions per clock cycle. L3 cache, an area Phenoms have always lacked, has been increased significantly from 2MB to 6MB shared between the four cores. And, finally, they have a new version of Cool'n'Quiet that has more power states and further lowers power consumption under moderate loads.

The X4 940 Black Edition will be priced at $275USD which will more or less match the slowest Core i7, the 920. The X4 920 meanwhile will go for $235USD. If Phenom II can compete with Core i7, it will make a compelling choice because of the much lower costs of the platform. Motherboards equipped with the latest AMD 790GX chipset range between $100 and $150, while X58 Core i7 boards go for double that. A Core i7 system also requires DDR3 memory which costs twice as much as DDR2. Enthusiasts also have to hunt for a compatible heatsink or pay for an adapter kit to get their current CPU heatsink mounted on a LGA1366 board. Phenom II, on the other hand, re-uses the familiar AM2+ socket, so that's not an issue. The 900-series model numbers of the new AMD parts seems intended to invite comparisons (confusion?) with the Intel i7. The ploy is hardly subtle, but perhaps obvious is what AMD marketing needs.

The AM2+ variation of Phenom II will most likely be a transitional product, as we are on the eve of AM3's debut. Phenom II for AM3 will support DDR3 memory, with the performance boost that comes with higher speed memory. The X4 920/940 may simply be a parting gift for those with AM2+ motherboards, rather than a sign of things to come. If AM2+ is relegated to the budget sector as Socket 754 was during the transition to Socket 939, we probably won't see any new high-end parts for it from here on in.

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