|As AMD rallied to offset December's sluggish debut of the Phenom 9600 by previewing some speedy Phenom 9900 processors for the new year, you might say the patient was out of bed and walking on his own two feet ... into a buzzsaw. For next week's CES trade show, Intel is poised to announce a slew of CPUs using its latest 45-nanometer-process engineering -- including dual-core chips that may make life tough for AMD's quads.
AMD is fresh off its latest soft launch, having given reviewers unimpressed with the performance of the shipping 2.3GHz Phenom 9600 CPU a peek at the upcoming 2.6GHz Phenom 9900. The latter should compete much more strongly against Intel's current quad-core processors.
Except Intel's already poised to hit back with a whole new set of Core 2 Quad and Core 2 Duo chips. Unless AMD has something big up its sleeve, next week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas could mark the beginning of the end of the next-generation CPU battle.
Intel has released a pre-CES briefing which covers a number of new products the company will introduce in early '08, but without much in the way of specific names or speeds. New product announcements include the battery-thrifty "Menlow" platform for small, mobile Internet devices; new NAND flash drives for ditto; a 45-nanometer-process refresh of today's "Santa Rosa" notebook platform; and -- most important for the mainstream -- a pack of Core 2 Duo and Quad desktop processors based on Intel's 45-nanometer, Hi-K metal gate "Penryn" architecture.
A Wolfdale in Sheep's Clothing
We know all about the 45nm "Yorkfield" quad-core platform from November's launch of new Xeon server CPUs and the 3.0GHz Core 2 Extreme QX9650 for gaming desktops. In fact, the latter will yield the gonzo throne to a 3.2GHz model QX9770 at CES.
But the big news will be the unveiling of the 45-nanometer-process, dual-core parts codenamed "Wolfdale." The enthusiast community is shivering with anticipation, not only because today's 45nm quad-core models are so expensive but because those CPUs have proven highly pliable when it comes to performance overclocking -- the lower-power, dual-core Wolfdale should be an even better overclocking platform.
Overall value should be extraordinary, as the 45nm Core 2 Duos will feature up to 6MB of Level 2 SmartCache, 1333MHz front-side bus support, clock speeds of 3.0GHz or higher, and state-of-the-art SSE4 multimedia instructions, while selling at prices that will make AMD's look like profit-gouging. If the pre-CES rumors are even close to the truth, expect to see many of these marvelous Wolfdale processors tagged under $200 ... and just imagine what that will do to existing 65-nanometer Core 2 Duo prices.
If this release plan comes to fruition, it will hit AMD hard, and at a time when the underdog has no clear strategy in the dual-core processor segment -- the dual- and tri-core Phenom models are still vaporware, and it's impossible for the existing Athlon 64 X2 to keep pace. After CES, AMD will need to ship dual- and tri-core variants of the Phenom architecture in great haste, but with the quad-core Phenom 9500 selling for $200, it may not even be cost-effective to do so. Talk about a Catch-22.
Yorkfield's Mainstream Momentum
If the Wolfdale news gets you excited, then more affordable Yorkfield quad-cores might put you over the top. This is another place that AMD is extremely vulnerable, with only the 2.2GHz Phenom 9500 and 2.3GHz Phenom 9600 now available.
Once Intel bridges the gap between the entry-level 2.4GHz Core 2 Quad Q6600 and the higher-priced Extreme Edition quad-cores, AMD will be in serious trouble. A reasonably priced 2.6GHz to 2.9GHz Core 2 Quad, sporting 12MB of L2 cache on 45-nanometer-process engineering, might be the mother of all product releases -- and that's exactly what Intel is rumored to be sending down the pike.
Enthusiasts have been eager for this transition to occur, as today's reasonably priced Intel quad-core CPUs can be counted on one finger while faster parts require you to fork over almost a grand. Intel is not likely to fool around with fat profit margins at 3.0GHz or higher, but slipping a product just below that -- using the 1333MHz bus would equate to roughly 2.66GHz or 2.83GHz -- would be a logical course of action. And given that Intel has already taken the Yorkfield core to 3.2GHz with gearheads pushing even higher, you can expect mainstream 45nm quad-cores to fulfill enthusiasts' dreams in 2008.
Intel's ballyhooed "Skulltrail" platform will also make its debut at CES, complete with dual CPU sockets for Core 2 Extreme octo-core processing and quad PCI Express 2.0 slots for up to four graphics cards. This takes over-the-top to new heights, and while the 45nm Core 2 Duo and Quad announcements are more relevant to the mainstream, Skulltrail should give Intel even more bragging rights among PC performance fanatics.
A Processor Pincer Movement?
With all this talk about quad- and dual-core processors, it's about time we laid the classic single-core CPU to rest, with the possible exception of the low-priced laptop and subnotebook segments. Rumors abound that Intel will ring out the single-core desktop by replacing its entry-level Celeron D with a new line of dual-core Celerons.
Actually, Intel already has budget dual-core products in the form of the Pentium Dual-Core and lower-end Core 2 Duo chips. And pre-release data hints that the upcoming Celeron dual-core will strongly resemble the Pentium Dual-Core that stealth-entered the retail notebook market last fall: The Celeron E1000 series slated to debut in January will start at 1.6GHz with an 800MHz front-side bus and 512K of Level 2 cache. Intel is obviously taking the old boxing adage to heart, and using the 45-nanometer Core 2 to hit 'em high, while the Celeron dual-core hits 'em low.
AMD executives must feel like Dick Cheney's hunting partners these days: No matter what AMD does, it still finds Intel ready, waiting, and loaded for bear. This forces AMD to react to the marketplace, rather than drive it, while Intel sits back and counts its chips in reserve -- given the weakened competition, Intel is more or less pushing its mainstream releases ahead just because it can.
Its preview of the Phenom 9900 proved that AMD is showing signs of life, but Intel is ready to set loose the 45-nanometer hordes. Place your bets -- and your pre-orders.