First Tests: AMD's New Phenom CPU Won't Scare Intel

After months of anticipation, AMD is launching its Phenom desktop processor and "Spider" platform for desktop PCs. Its new Phenom chips feature a native quad-core design, a 65-nanometer manfufacturing process, and enhanced power management technology.

But will Phenom and the new motherboards, chip sets, and graphics boards that make up the rest of the Spider platform be enough to put a dent in Intel's recent dominance? We ran a Spider-based system through our PC WorldBench 6 beta 2 benchmark at an AMD event in Lake Tahoe, and came away convinced that AMD still has a lot of work to do.

Tough Times

All things considered, 2007 probably hasn't been AMD's favorite year. In fact, things haven't been exactly sunshine and roses for the company since the middle of 2006 when Intel introduced its Core 2 Duo CPUs. After a good three years as the performance champ, AMD was suddenly getting its clock cleaned by its rival--literally; when running at the same clock speed Core 2 Duo chips were anywhere from 10 to nearly 20 percent faster than comparable Athlon 64 X2s.

Not only that, but AMD's $US5.4 billion dollar acquisition of GPU and chip set vendor ATI was followed almost immediately by its new purchase sliding well back in its performance race with nVidia. The purchase gave AMD expertise in GPUs and chip sets plus independence from nVidia--a longtime ally who had started supporting Intel the year before--but it added to the perception of the company as firmly in second place. Losing money for several quarters straight hasn't helped, either.

2007 also saw AMD fall increasingly behind in the race for better process technology. Intel's new Penryn chips are manufactured using a 45-nanometer process, which allows the company to pack in more transistors per square millimeter than the 65nm process AMD is introducing with its Phenom chips. That can translate to more chips per slab of silicon for cheaper production, giving Intel yet another advantage. AMD's latest 65nm Opterons with their parsimonious power usage are competing well in the server market, but that does nothing for the mainstream.

Which brings us to the rollout of Phenom, a quad-core desktop CPU that AMD's own benchmarks place at 32 percent faster than a dual-core Athlon 64 X2 running at the same clock speed. The company hopes Phenom will keep it within shouting distance, performance-wise, of Intel's desktop products.

Whither the Chips?

Unfortunately, there were few (as in no) Phenom parts to be had for independent testing or purchase by the time of this writing. When asked about this, AMD's Simon Solotko said plenty of the 2.2-GHz Phenom 9500 and 2.3-GHz Phenom 9600 parts would be in the channel by the Monday launch. He also said the scarcity of review units was due to the complexity of a rollout that also involves the new 790FX Spider chip set and ATI 3800 series graphics cards, not because of any problem fabricating the new chips.

According to AMD, the 2.2-GHz Phenom 9500 will sell for $US251 (in quantities of 1000) and the 2.3-GHz Phenom 9600 will go for $US283. An unlocked, overclockable Black Edition 2.3-GHz Phenom will also be available later this year. The 2.6-GHz Phenom 9900 that AMD made available at its benchmarking event won't be available until the first quarter of 2008, and should cost below $US350 when it's released. A sub-$US300 2.4-GHz 9700 parts is scheduled to ship in the same timeframe.

The Phenom-based sysftem we tested featured two of ATI's recently-released Radeon HD 3850 graphics cards, an MSI motherboard using AMD's 790FX chip set, and 2GB of DDR2-1066 RAM.

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Jon L. Jacobi

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