AMD’s K8L and 4×4 Preview

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Gaming the System

Anyone who has been following the gaming segment has probably noticed an increasing desperation on behalf of the major vendors (AMD, Intel, Nvidia and ATi) to retain leadership in their respective areas of expertise, no matter the cost. This started with the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, which sold reasonably well, despite its equally extreme pricing. While these ‘extreme’ parts have ridiculous ASPs, it does seem like the major goal is really PR, rather than profitability. Sometimes, these products also fall short on real performance, because the software ecosystem is unprepared.

AMD introduced a new product line for the extreme gaming market, which is in essence, a dual socket system using Athlon FX processors and standard DDR2 (rather than the registered DIMMs used for Opteron). This announcement is obviously an attempt to bolster one of AMD’s core markets, against future encroachment from Intel’s Conroe XE. However, the good news is that AMD resisted the temptation to do a quick hack for bragging rights. Both MPUs can attach to memory, and the system is outfitted to work with dual GPUs. The latency should be rather similar or slightly better than existing two socket Opteron systems, although it is quite unclear to what extent the extra processors will improve performance for most games.

There is an added wrinkle, which is that to some extent 4×4 will compete with Opteron based workstations and servers, such as the Tyan Thunder K8WE. Although product plan details have not been announced, it seems like the main differentiator between 4×4 and a 2 socket Opteron would be ECC protection for memory. For some applications this could be enough to ensure that the users pick the appropriately positioned product. However, some buyers will see the two as interchangeable and simply opt for the cheaper solution. In fact, if the 4×4 works with regular Athlon parts, it might be just the thing for a low cost scale out system, load balanced web servers for instance. However, since the system is not likely to appear till the latter part of the year, AMD will have a while to figure out a marketing strategy to avoid these undesirable crossovers.

Conclusion

AMD’s spring analyst day presented a lot of news on future plans, products and focus areas at the company. The most interesting part was a nice preview of the next generation K8 microprocessor. The K8L, as it has been dubbed, is a strong incremental improvement over the 65nm shrink of the K8. There will be several changes to the microarchitecture, most notably in the memory hierarchy. The level of integration will also increase, enhancing the scalability of systems built around this next generation part, which is due out in the middle of 2007. Naturally, once more details are available, full coverage of the subject would be in order. Preliminarily, the “K8L” looks to be a very solid MPU, elegantly integrating four cores together. The other topic we covered was AMD’s 4×4 announcement, which is somewhat more niche. Fortunately for end-users, 4×4 is a well planned out design from the technical perspective and not a simple grab for the performance crown.

Unfortunately, discussing everything that went on would be nearly impossible. While we focused heavily on the K8L and the 4×4 platform, there were other topics that are worth mentioning. AMD discussed their plans for fabs and manufacturing capacity, initiatives to serve the developing world and a 65nm mobile Turion part. By far and away the most exciting topic that we have not discussed are coprocessors, but that is an issue for another day.


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