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Inside AMD's Phenom And Opteron Quad-Core Architectures

Analysis: There's a race to market as well as a design battle between AMD and Intel over which company has the best quad-core desktop and server processors.


Inside AMD


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In lifting the lid on the new "10h" architecture, which will power its upcoming Phenom and Barcelona quad-core chips, AMD is throwing down the gauntlet to Intel in the battle for processor supremacy.

To really understand where the quad-core competition stands, one must untangle the race to market from the debate over whose architecture is better. On the first score, Intel is clearly ahead. Intel already offers several quad-core desktop processors, as part of its Core 2 Quad and Core 2 Extreme families. On the server side, Intel currently ships no less than nine quad-core Xeon server chips.



 Phenom will be the official product name for AMD's Agena desktop quad core.

(click image for larger view)


Phenom will be the official product name for AMD's Agena desktop quad core.

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Intel detailed its other near-term plans at May 3 Spring Analyst Meeting. The chip giant's laundry list of planned introductions includes two new quads based on Intel's latest 45-nanometer chip technology: Yorkfield for desktops and Harpertown for servers. Both are due in the second half of this year.

AMD, behind in race to ship quads, trying to shift the discussion to which company is building a better processor. With Phenom, the just-announced product name for the desktop quads previously called Agena, and with Barcelona, the upcoming quad-core versions of the Opteron server chip, AMD thinks it does. Barcelona is expected to ship sometime this summer; Phenom will follow later this year.

Despite--or perhaps because of--the fact that Intel was the first to ship quads, AMD never hestitates to point out that its initial quad-core processors are fresh, from-the-ground-up designs. "Currently there is no manufacturer on the planet that has native quad-cores. Our competitors have dual, dual cores," is how Ian McNaughton, AMD's FX product manager, put it in a phone interview last month.

That dig refers to the fact that Intel's first-generation quads essentially place two dual-core processors side by side. Intel doesn't think this is an issue. As Intel CEO Paul Otellini put it at the Intel Developers Forum last September: "The initial ones are multi-chip, but so what?' You guys are misreading the market if you think people care what's in the package.''



Block diagram of Barcelona, the upcoming quad-core Opteron.

(click image for larger view)


Block diagram of Barcelona, the upcoming quad-core Opteron.

view the image gallery

Judging by past history, PC users are far more likely to care about processor performance than design issues which are difficult for non-electrical engineers to get much of a grasp on. Indeed, when dual-core processors debuted in 2005, a similar battle of marketing one-upmanship occurred. Then, AMD touted its Athlon 64 X2 processors as "true" dual cores, as compared to the bolted-together 800-series Pentium Ds.

However, the dual-core duel became, and remains a performance battle. AMD was widely perceived to have taken an initial lead. Intel was seen as recovering the advantage when its introduced its Core 2 Duo family in mid-2006.

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