AMD, Intel battle for the mainstream - how low can quad-core go?

Summary:Two stories about AMD jumped out at me this week. First, market researcher iSuppli reported that Intel had increased its share of the worldwide PC processor market, by revenues, to more than 80 percent--a level it hasn't reach in nearly four years.

Two stories about AMD jumped out at me this week. First, market researcher iSuppli reported that Intel had increased its share of the worldwide PC processor market, by revenues, to more than 80 percent--a level it hasn't reach in nearly four years. AMD lost share not because it is selling fewer chips, iSuppli said, but because of lower prices. Second, AMD announced the industry's first sub-$100 quad-core processor.

It's not hard to connect the dots. AMD is now firmly in the role of value play for processors. That hasn't always been the case. AMD has introduced many significant innovations over the years that, combined with the occasional misstep by Intel, gave it a competitive advantage. In more recent times, though, the company has struggled to make its acquisition of ATI pay off and its gamble on a native quad-core chip, Barcelona, went bad. AMD has been paying for it ever since, and was eventually forced to spin-off its own fabs, creating GlobalFoundries.

Competing on price isn't necessarily a bad strategy, though. It's pretty clear that buyers are opting for cheaper laptops and desktops, and AMD can deliver a good value by pairing a relatively inexpensive CPU with Radeon graphics that outperforms Intel's finest. This is the "balanced platform" that AMD has been preaching for some time.

The new Athlon II quad-core processors that AMD announced include the 2.60GHz Athlon II X4 620 and 2.80GHz Athlon II X4 630. Newegg is selling the Athlon II X4 620 for $99 and Athlon II X4 630 is priced at $126. AMD first discussed these quad-cores back in June, when it introduced the first Athlon II series chip, the dual-core 3.0GHz Athlon II X2 250. This processor currently sells for around $76.

Despite the Athlon name, the chip actually uses the same basic design as the newer Phenom and Phenom II processors, known as the K10 microarchitecture. The major difference is that the Athlon II, or "Propus" core, does not have shared L3 cache, which means fewer transistors and a smaller chip that is less expensive to manufacture. There are numerous reviews of the chip (some links below), but here's the short version: the Athlon II X4 620 is competitive with the $150 Core 2 Quad 8200--Intel's cheapest quad-core chip--but nowhere near the performance of the recently released 2.66GHz Core i5-750, which is twice the price.

The Athlon II X4 is designed for mainstream desktops, and the platform includes the 785G chipset with Radeon HD 4200 graphics. The combination should deliver more than enough muscle to handle Windows 7, as well as features such as Blu-ray playback and support for ATI's Stream technology, which like Nvidia's CUDA, can speed-up certain tasks such as video encoding when using compatible software.

Given these capabilities, it will be interesting to see just how low computer makers can go with prices of quad-core systems. HP has already announced a business desktop, the HP Compaq 6005 Pro, that will use this platform. The 6005 Pro starts at $563, but it only offers dual-core Athlon IIs or triple- or quad-core Phenom IIs, so we'll need to wait to see where consumer desktops with the quad-core Athlon II end up.

The Athlon II trickled down from AMD's high-end Phenoms. Historically this is how both AMD and Intel have introduced their latest and greatest. But in another sign of just how important mainstream laptops and desktops have become, Intel plans to release its 32nm Westmere technology in mainstream processors first. This week Intel said the new chips--Clarkdale for desktops and Arrandale for laptops--were on track for early 2010 and posted a video with some details on the making of the first 32nm processors. Intel execs will no doubt have a lot more to say on Westmere at next week's Intel Developer Forum.

AMD Athlon II X4 reviews:

Topics: Processors, Hardware, Intel

About

John Morris is a former executive editor at CNET Networks and senior editor at PC Magazine. He now works for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are... Full Bio

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