Chipmaker AMD has had a busy 2011. Its low-power E-Series and C-Series processors have found a niche in netbooks and ultra-thin laptops. The A-Series, its first 32nm processor, is just now finding its way into laptops bringing a new level of graphics performance to mainstream PCs without discrete GPUs. As a result, AMD has been regaining a little market share.
But even with the A-Series AMD's CPU performance falls short of Intel's second-generation Core processors. Starting this month, though, AMD will finally have a chip designed to go head-to-head with the fastest Core i5 and Core i7 Sandy Bridge processors.
The high-end processor, code-named Zambezi, has been the subject of steady leaks for months on everything from the name to model numbers and prices to early benchmark numbers (which turned out to be fake). AMD even created a comic book and video trailer to drum up excitement for the chip.
During AMD's recent quarterly earnings call, executives confirmed that Zambezi would begin shipping this month. AMD will resurrect the FX enthusiast brand for the line, which will reportedly include four processors, the quad-core FX-4100, six-core FX-6100 and eight-core FX-8100 and FX-8150.
Though it uses the same 32nm manufacturing process as the A-Series, the FX Series is a very different product. For starters, the FX Series is a CPU, not an APU (or Accelerated Processing Unit) with an integrated graphics processor. The Scorpius high-end desktop platform will include an eight-core FX-Series processor, Radeon 6000 HD discrete graphics and AMD's 9-series supporting chipset. AMD demonstrated the platform at the E3 Expo in June. Later this year AMD plans to release its Radeon 7000 series, or Southern Islands, which is likely to be the first 28nm GPU (though Nvidia now says it will begin shipping Kepler by the end of the year as well).
The FX Series is also based on an entirely new architecture, which AMD refers to as Bulldozer. Each Bulldozer module has two integer cores that share other components including the floating-point unit, instruction cache and front-end logic. AMD's roadmaps refer to the integer cores as Bulldozer "cores," which makes things a bit confusing. An eight-core FX Series processor actually has four Bulldozer modules with a total of eight integer cores and four floating-point units; a quad-core has two Bulldozer modules with four integer cores and two FPUs. Intel's core, by comparison, has a single integer core and dedicated floating-point unit, but the integer core is capable of processing two threads simultaneously, a feature the company refers to as Hyper-Threading.
By the end of the quarter, AMD also plans to begin shipping server processors based on the same Bulldozer architecture. The Opteron 4200 (code-named Valencia) will have six or eight integer cores and the Opteron 6200 (Interlagos) mainstream server processor will have eight, 12 or 16 integer cores. Like the current 12-core Opteron 6100 (Magny-Cours), the 12- and 16-core Opteron 6200s are actually multi-chip packages with two processors. In a video posted this week, John Fruehe, AMD's Director of Product Marketing for servers, showed a Supermicro single-socket server running a 16-core Opteron 6200.
How it will stack up to the Core i7 (or Xeon) Sandy Bridge depends on how you look at it. On a core vs. core basis, a single Bulldozer integer core is unlikely to be as fast as an Intel core with two threads. But by sharing the FPU and other components--and jumping to a more advanced 32nm manufacturing process--AMD was able to design a module with room for two separate integer cores in roughly the same space as the Phenom's K10 core. That means AMD should be able to position an FX-8100 with four Bulldozer modules and eight integer cores against a Core i7-2600 with four cores and eight threads. In this scenario, the FX Series should be very competitive on multi-threaded applications since, all things being equal, eight physical cores should outperform eight threads. (This positioning would also make sense given that the FX series is rumored to cost up to $300 and the Core i7-2600 lists for $294.) AMD also claims that the shared components help to reduce overall power consumption.
AMD has been working on Bulldozer for six years and it is arguably the first major change since the introduction in 2003 of the K8 architecture, which brought 64-bit instructions and an integrated memory controller. The high-end desktop market may be shrinking, but for AMD it's still an important audience, and the company needs to regain some ground in the lucrative server market. On top of this, AMD plans to use Bulldozer in its Trinity APUs for mainstream laptops and desktops next year. In short, AMD has a lot riding on Bulldozer.