Some Things You Probably Don’t Know

After visiting the usual hangouts, none had the news I found at Hardware Central . It certainly pays to keep looking, because no one place has it all.

AMD has just released the news of, and demonstrated Istanbul, the six-core processor that AMD hopes to help regain server market share lost to Intel, and gain back some of the respect it lost when the Core processors started kicking sand in the AMD collective faces.

This is not new. It was reported elsewhere.

What is new is that the Istanbul will be a socket F processor, making hopes of an Istanbul in an AM3 motherboard an impossibility. It does give hope to those brave souls who bought the Socket F boards that were not designed for rack units. Can you imagine a 6×4 setup?

The Istanbul Six

The big CPU news last week was AMD showcasing its latest high-end product, the six-core Opteron server processor codenamed “Istanbul.” This took place in a closed-door session with various industry and press representatives, where the new Istanbul core design was demo’d and put through the basic paces. The demo included loading various operating systems, creating multiple virtual machines, and running a few basic performance tests.

Naturally, a six-core processor will spank a quad from the same basic family, so the latest Opteron is a real performance winner. Since it’s a server processor, the gains increase exponentially in two-, four-, or eight-socket (48 cores!) systems. The six-core Opteron also supports the existing Socket F package and uses dual-channel DDR2 memory, so with the proper BIOS update it allows a drop-in upgrade for existing Opteron systems.

This should allow a seamless transition for system vendors, and with the economy currently in the doldrums, server upgrades seem like a logical path for many businesses. Of course, there will likely be concessions in clock speed in order to hit thermal and power-consumption goals, but in a highly multithreaded server environment, additional cores are still the best path to performance. This latest Opteron powerhouse is set to debut in the second half of 2009, which should really help AMD against Intel’s Nehalem-based Xeon models.

As compelling as this news is, the six-core Opteron is not what has PC enthusiast forums buzzing; it’s the prospect of a six-core CPU for the desktop. There are even Socket F QuadFather (AMD 4×4) platform owners who wonder if this new six-core Opteron just might be compatible. It’s been a long time since AMD news has caught on like this, and up against the onslaught of the Core i7, AMD should look very closely at the prospects of a six-core Phenom II (or III) as a potential solution for the performance desktop market.

Yes, that’s what we want to hear!

We’re also told about the Phenom dual core processors, which will have the same L3 cache as the triple core models. This should make them very snappy, considering the speeds will be binned up to 3.1 GHz, and of course, there is already a Black Edition, so when the speed moves up, there will be a top BE model.

The Phenom II Diversifies

As for the Phenom II, the next step in its evolution will be higher clock speeds for the AM3 models. Remember, AMD’s Socket AM3 launch topped out with the cache-stunted, 2.6GHz Phenom II X4 810, leaving performance buyers sitting on the fence, waiting for AMD to match or exceed the 3.0GHz of the Socket AM2+ Phenom II X4 940.

This transition should take place soon, as the existing Phenom II X4 900 series, likely under an updated numbering scheme, should be replicated across the AM3 spectrum, along with a new 3.1GHz Phenom II X4 9xx model. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, as AMD is planning to load up at all the other price points, and will finally offer a true dual-core Phenom II model.

The first generation of Phenom processors included only triple- and quad-core versions, and when we talked to AMD about the lack of a dual-core variant, the response was predictably along the lines of the Athlon 64 X2 doing just fine in that role. You can probably add some Core 2 Duo envy in there too, as the Phenom really only held its own against Intel at the triple-core and higher range.

Apparently, things have changed, and now that AMD has gone to 45-nanometer engineering and a larger Level 3 cache, the Phenom II X2 is poised to make an appearance, with the same 512K of Level 2 per core plus 6MB of shared L3 architecture as the Phenom II X3 and X4 processors. Clock speeds are also going to be very competitive, with estimates of 3.1GHz at the high end, matching the top-end Phenom II X4.

When you add up the lower price and decreased power and thermal specifications of a dual-core Phenom II with 6MB of L3 cache, this makes the Phenom II X2 a very interesting release. At 45nm, it could well be the new small-form-factor/home-theater-PC darling. The only problem is that we probably won’t see it before summer, giving buyers another long wait.

and a surprise! Could this be for upgraders who don’t want to change out that cherished motherboard?

The Athlon Rises from the Grave

While it may seem that AMD has a smart Phenom II strategy mapped out from top to bottom, as well as an ample existing lineup of Phenom X3/X4 and Athlon X2 models, the company is apparently planning to launch a revamped line of Athlon X2, X3, and X4 processors. In the face of a balanced set of Phenom II models, including a new low-cost Phenom II X2, exhuming the old Athlon brand seems a bit strange.

These new Athlon CPUs are projected to be based on new core designs, rather than revised or core-disabled versions of the existing Phenom II. Some models will include L3 cache and some won’t, while clock speeds will range up to a full 3.0GHz. These will obviously have lower power and thermal windows, but otherwise the question is, why?

Why introduce a new Athlon line when the same basic strategy can be replicated within the existing Phenom or Phenom II lineup, either by a new series or through lower-clocked models? Why look for a lower-priced alternative, when the Phenom II X2 is certain to be priced very low?

It’s as if AMD is taking a step backwards, and an unwieldy, multitiered Phenom/Athlon attack is certain to confuse buyers. Someone at AMD must have it bad for the Athlon brand name, and as we get closer to the release, it would not be surprising to see at least part of this new Athlon initiative take the same path as the ethereal, never-released dual-core Duron.

I know it probably won’t be so, but some steps up in socket 754 and 939 would certainly be nice – and wouldn’t AMD have a special place in the hearts of the low budget tinkerers! (I keep looking at several of the deal houses for computer parts, and there are new socket 939 motherboards available, but no corresponding 939 procs)

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Quote of the Day:

Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.
–H.L. Mencken

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