|It's sometimes seemed as if both AMD and Intel were coasting through 2008, but if you don't keep your foot on the gas in today's CPU market, you get run over. AMD learned that in 2007 and is planning for better luck this year, while Intel has set "Wolfdale" -- the dual-core desktop edition of its nifty 45-nanometer-process "Penryn" design -- loose on the mainstream market. Both chipmakers are ramping up for an exciting close to the first quarter, introducing new processors, launching previously announced ones, and even offering a few surprises along the way.
Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolfdale?
The hardware enthusiast market has been waiting for a low-priced 45-nanometer Penryn since the successor to Intel's 65-nanometer "Merom" core was announced in November 2007. Sure, the 45nm quad-core Extreme processors may get the headlines, but their $1,000-plus prices ensure they'll never affect the mass market. The dual-core Wolfdale is the real key, as it provides excellent performance for $300 or less.
The 3.0GHz Core 2 Duo E8400 was the first Wolfdale to hit retail shelves -- and to be snatched up swiftly by the teeming hordes, leading to out-of-stock notices at most major online vendors. Intel followed through by introducing the Core 2 Duo E8500, with the same basic specifications but a higher 3.16GHz clock speed.
These CPUs run on a 1333MHz front-side bus and sport a full 6MB of SmartCache, 2MB more than the 65nm Core 2 Duos. The E8000 series' 45-nanometer architecture also means it can overclock like a demon, and enthusiasts are having a lot of fun discovering its limits.
The 45-nanometer Wolfdale is now the absolute sweet spot for any new Intel performance system. For only $250, you can buy (if you can find) a 3.0GHz powerhouse, with the 3.16GHz model only a bit more expensive at $300. The 45-nanometer-process Penryn family is also more energy-efficient: Even at 3.0GHz or higher, these CPUs offer a thermal design power of 65 watts -- significantly below the 95 to 150 watts of their quad-core siblings. That makes the Wolfdale so attractive that AMD must feel like Little Red Riding Hood, hoping for the woodsman to show up soon.
Meanwhile, new 45nm, quad-core "Yorkfield" models have also started hitting the Intel site, if not the retail shelves. The Core 2 Quad Q9300 (2.5GHz), Q9450 (2.66GHz), and Q9550 (2.83GHz) now have official status in Intel's product list. Once they reach retailers, the company will have a top-to-bottom 45-nanometer dual- and quad-core lineup that will be very hard to beat. And if that isn't enough, Intel is rumored to be readying a six-core CPU for later in 2008.
Sempron Seeing Double
Although a dual-core version of AMD's entry-level processor had been rumored for years, it apparently took the arrival of Intel's dual-core Celeron to prod AMD into shipping a dual-core Sempron -- the Sempron 2100+, quietly introduced in China in an apparent bid to head off the Celeron E1200 in that colossal emerging market. AMD has stated that China is a valuable market for initial product releases, so don't be surprised if the 2100+ shows up in North America, either officially or through the global marketplace.
The Sempron 2100+ is a 65-nanometer-process Socket AM2 chip with dual 256K Level 2 caches and a clock speed of 1.8GHz -- a likely marketing advantage over the 1.6GHz Celeron E1200. In prerelease benchmarking, the Sempron 2100+ manages to keep up with the E1200, while naturally trailing a same-clock-speed Athlon 64 X2.
In some ways, this is a strange product release. AMD has plans for a dual-core Phenom, which would make the older Athlon 64 X2 the natural low-end choice, but as with Intel's Celeron, going dual-core is a way to make use of the Sempron brand and underscore its entry-level status. AMD has also been working at highlighting its advantage in the entry-level and mainstream markets, while downplaying its current challenges at the high end.
The dual-core Sempron follows this strategy perfectly, as not only will the Sempron 2100+ carry a low, low price tag, but it'll also exploit AMD's various low-cost chipsets. A dual-core Sempron sale also means a potential 690G chipset sale, or perhaps even a low-end ATI graphics card buy. Vertical integration is nice when it works, but losing a potential sale to the Celeron E1200 now means real-world losses in the platform and graphics areas as well.
AMD Hits a Triple, But Is Stuck on Second
One product series that's been noticeably absent from retail shelves is the expanded AMD Phenom line -- specifically, the dual- and tri-core models. AMD has been very quiet on this subject, and the only word we've received is that the triple Phenom will arrive before any dual-cores. The latest gossip has AMD introducing the tri-core in the form of a 2.1GHz Phenom 8400 and 2.3GHz model 8600 at next week's CeBIT 2008 show, and later adding a 2.4GHz Phenom 8700.
These tri-core models are architectural twins of the Phenom quad-cores, with 512K of L2 cache per core and 2MB of shared L3; in fact, they are Phenom quad-cores, simply with one core disabled. They use the same AM2+ processor package. According to AMD, if a motherboard supports the Phenom quad-core, it'll support them all.
It's no surprise that AMD has taken a bit of time to ready the Phenom 8000 series, as its quad-core models have not exactly set the performance world on fire. Then again, tri-core benchmark results should be very close to quad-core, so a 2.3GHz top speed at release is also not shock. Certainly, mainstream buyers would love to see a 2.5GHz or 2.6GHz clock, but AMD needs to maintain some kind of premium on its quad-core line.
There are still many questions surrounding the Phenom 8000 series, such as how the loss of one core will affect power and thermal requirements. Price is also a consideration, especially as the current Phenom 9500 sells for under $200; so is competitive performance against the midrange Core 2 Duos.
Still, AMD is on a bit of a roll right now, having squashed its quad-cores' TLB bug with its release of B3-stepping processors and announced its 45-nanometer transition plans for 2008. A fuller complement of Phenoms will definitely help.