2008 CPU forecast: Quad-cores for everyone!

What's in store for desktop processors this year? Computerworld makes its annual CPU prognostications.

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AMD makes its move: Phenom and then some

For AMD, 2007 was not exactly the company's finest year. Missed ship dates and inferior processor performance blemished the spunky chip maker's fairly favorable track record of providing solid performance at affordable prices. Industry analysts were quick to point the finger at AMD's acquisition of graphics manufacturer ATI Technologies Inc., claiming that the company had bitten off more than it could chew.

For its part, AMD has been surprisingly candid about its missteps, and the company is hopeful that 2008 will tell a different story.

At the end of 2007, AMD bid its Athlon series of CPUs adieu and finally released its next-generation Phenom processors, a product line that included the intriguing presence of a triple-core line of processors. One of the biggest advantages AMD has been able to claim over Intel is that Phenom processors are the first native quad-core CPUs on the market -- meaning all cores are integrated onto a single die. A shared L3 cache and improved power management were also touted as key new features in this new microarchitecture.

Unfortunately, two setbacks marred the highly anticipated release of Phenom. First, right before the processor's debut, a bug was discovered in the L3 cache that could cause system lock-ups in rare instances. The software patch that AMD subsequently released fixed this problem, but system performance took a slight hit. (Buyers beware: Avoid systems bearing Phenom 9500 and 9600 processors. AMD will release new CPUs with this bug fixed under the 9550 and 9650 model names.)

The second problem was that processor performance of the initial wave of high-end Phenoms trailed that of Intel's already-entrenched Core 2 Duo line of CPUs in head-to-head testing. There's an important caveat here: Benchmarking tests between Phenom and Core 2 were waged at a fairly high range of CPU ranks. We'll know more about relative performance at the low- and midrange in coming weeks.

Interestingly, the current state of the market is not unlike the conditions AMD faced 10 years ago, when Intel was a consensus favorite at the performance and compatibility levels. In 2008, system buyers can expect AMD to attempt to make up ground in the price-performance ground war by aggressively pricing Phenom and old-gen Athlon processors. The end result should be highly affordable basic-use PCs.

For 2008, AMD has some fairly substantial hopes staked around a brand new platform that will feature integrated on-die graphics and a complementary new chip set that will (theoretically) harness the power of this new integrated approach to computing.

The 2008 Phenom lineup

Over the course of 2008, AMD will release a number of Phenom processors at all price levels. At the performance level, we'll see the release of three processors in the quad-core Phenom FX line: the 2.6-GHz FX-82, the 2.4-GHz FX-90 and the 2.6-GHz FX-91. All three processors will have 2MB of L2 cache and 2MB of shared L3 cache. The FX-82 will be compatible with Socket AM2+, while the two FX-9x will utilize AMD's server-oriented Socket F+, which features the speedier memory controller found in HyperTransport 3.0. It's a fair bet that we'll see more FX processors later in the year -- we expect to see this series of processors top at 3.4 GHz by year's end.

At the high- and midrange CPU calibers, we'll see numerous Phenom chips. In the first quarter of 2008, AMD is scheduled to release the fixed versions of the flawed Phenom 9500 and 9600 processors released in 2007. As mentioned, they will be named the Phenom 9550 and 9650 and will run at clock speeds of 2.2 GHz and 2.3 GHz, respectively.

The second quarter of 2008 will bring the speedier quad-core Phenom 9700 (2.4 GHz) and 9900 (2.6 GHz) as well as a slightly slower 1.8-GHz 9150 model. All of the aforementioned 9000 series CPUs will feature 2MB of L2 cache and 2MB of L3 cache. Later in the year, we expect to see speed jumps up to 3.4 GHz in this series.

Triple-core -- really?

A unique and intriguing addition to AMD's CPU lineup for 2008 is its 8000 series of triple-core processors. The asymmetry of triple-core processing has apparently thrown some Internet pundits off their game: AMD has been subjected to a fair amount of criticism for selling what are essentially quad-core CPUs with one core disabled or unable to function. The reality is that Intel, AMD and all chip manufacturers sell CPUs with dysfunctional or underperforming cores.

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