AMD releases its first desktop platform

AMD has unveiled its first complete desktop platform codenamed “Spider”.

The concept is similar to what we’ve seen in the past from Intel (eg: Centrino) where a single vendor brings together its own CPU chipset and graphics technology to create a unified hardware base. In AMD’s case this only became possible with the acquisition of major graphics vendor ATI in July 2006 a move which some analysts suggested was necessary for AMD to survive at all in the ever-competitive chipset and CPU market especially given Intel’s comprehensive support for both ATI and NVIDIA graphics technologies for the enthusiast and gaming markets.

AMD Spider targets that particular section of the PC market and consists of three distinct components each supported by a particular AMD product range:

Graphics

The graphics component of AMD Spider is handled by the new ATI Radeon HD 3800 series of GPUs of which there are two variants – the 3870 and the 3850. The last two digits in each are ATI’s new product variant classification with “50” the equivalent of “Pro” and “70” the equivalent of “XT”

The 3800 series supports a number of emergent graphics technologies – DirectX 10.1 (which will ship with Windows Vista SP1) PCIe Generation 2.0 optimisations for HD playback – particularly in the areas of Blu-ray and HD DVD – and 55nm manufacturing process (versus the 80nm process used in the 2900XT GPU). It also features ATI CrossFireX which is the rebranded CrossFire product and now capable of supporting up to four GPUs in a single configuration.

As part of the Spider press kit AMD released benchmark information for both the 3870 and the 3850 which demonstrate a distinct performance increase over both the 2900XT and 8800GTS in certain conditions. Of course the benchmarks are designed to put the 3800 series in the best light but they still make for interesting reading. Especially that Windows Vista x64 was used as the benchmarking OS.

Radeon 3870 Benchmarks
Radeon 3850 Benchmarks

CPU

The CPU backbone of the Spider platform is AMD’s new range of Phenom 65nm processors. They come in three variations – the triple-core Phenom 8000 series (codename Toliman) the quad-core Phenom 9000 series (codename Agena) and the Phenom-FX series (codename Agena FX) for high-end enthusiasts. The triple-core 8000 series represents a more accessible price point but the quad-core 9000 series is the main CPU for the Spider platform.

AMD is marketing the 9000 series the first true quad-core processor as all the cores are situated on the same silicon as opposed to Intel’s Core 2 Quad CPUs which use a multicore module design. The Phenom range features the HyperTransport 3.0 specification offering a bandwidth increase over HyperTransport 2.0 of around 86% and raw bandwidth f up to 20.8 GB/sec. The CPUs also feature 2MB dedicated L2 cache as well as a shared 2MB L3 cache and an integrated 128-bit dual-channel memory controller supporting up to DDR2 1066. All the cores memory controller and I/O interface communicate using a crossbar switch rather than the front side bus (FSB).

The CPUs maintain “Direct Connect Architecture” which means that they offer flexibility across various AMD platforms – specifically AM2 AM2+ and AM3. This means that there is a migration path and compatibility between processors from the Athlon X2 5000+ all the way through to the next-generation 45nm CPUs (codenamed Deneb).

Chipset

Bringing everything together is the AMD 7-series chipset. At present there are three variations:

  • AMD 770 for mainstream users supporting a single processor and a single PCIe 2.0 slot
  • AMD 790X for gamers and HD enthusiasts supporting a single CPU and dual PCIe 2.0 slots for CrossFireX
  • AMD 790FX for hardcore users supporting both single and dual CPU configurations and quad PCIe 2.0 slots

All chipsets support HyperTransport 3.0.

AMD OverDrive is available on all 7 series-based systems allowing users to overclock their systems as much or as little as desired. All the chipsets also feature AMD AutoXpress a BIOS-level system which automatically tunes the system to increase performance. It’s similar to NVIDIA’s LinkBoost technology on its nForce 500 and 600 chipsets


AMD will be releasing a 7-series integrated mobile chipset later this year (AMD 780M) so it will be interesting to see how it competes against Intel’s dominance of the mobile market. We can also expect to see the competition crank up again when 45nm CPUs and supporting chipsets are released – again later in 2008.

What is certainly impressive with AMD Spider is that it allows users to access all the new technologies at each price point making it a compelling option for everyone from casual computer users to high-end enthusiasts. However the success of the platform will depend on its ability to compete with Intel in the cut-throat integrated systems market and to compete with NVIDIA in the ever-fickle high-end gaming market. These two markets represent the two extremes of the PC market – at one end where bang for buck is everything and profit margins are shaved to just a few dollars all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum where performance is everything and users are willing to shell out vast sums to maintain a competitive edge.