Introduction

Over the past several years, Intel has followed an odd path of microprocessor design. On the heels of the success of the P6 core, Intel set two teams in motion - one to work on the NetBurst architecture that would be the foundation of the Pentium 4, and one to work on a low-cost, low power highly integrated core that would eventually be redesigned into the Pentium M. The team eventually charged with designing the Pentium M took a more evolutionary approach building off of the strengths of the P6 architecture, while the NetBurst team preferred a radical departure from Intel's previously most successful architecture at the time.

We all know how this story ends; as NetBurst evolved, so did the underlying architecture of the Pentium M. Dothan was the first tweak of the Pentium M and it was mostly a clean up job to fix some performance issues with the original core. Higher clock speeds, more cache, and slight increases in IPC were on Dothan's CV.

Intel's Israel Development Center (IDC) then took Dothan and re-architected it to be a native dual core solution, complete with a shared L2 cache, the first of its type for an Intel processor. The Dothan to Yonah progression was far more significant than the move from Banias to Dothan, not just because Yonah was dual core but also because of the many architectural improvements that went into Yonah.

The next step Intel took is one we're all familiar with, and involves the most radical design change of the Pentium M's short lived history; Intel took Yonah and made it wider, deeper, and far more efficient. Out came the Core 2 line of processors and with it, Intel regained the undisputed performance crown it hadn't seen ever since the debut of AMD's Athlon 64.

While many argued that Banias, the first Pentium M core, was merely a modern take on the P6 architecture it's hard to see much in common between today's Core 2 and the 11 year old Pentium Pro. The P6 core was a starting point for a long line of evolution that brought Intel to where it is today.

AMD took a far more conservative approach over the past several years; it all started with the success of the K7 core, effectively a wider, faster, competitor to later versions of Intel's P6 architecture. While one of Intel's teams was busy making radical departures from anything AMD or Intel had done in the past, AMD didn't have the luxury of running two large scale microprocessor projects in tandem. The solution was to take the K7 core and improve on it, rather than taking a risky step in a different direction.

The K8 core was born as an evolution of the K7; with a slightly deeper pipeline, slight architectural improvements and an integrated Northbridge, the K8 was a pretty major evolutionary step for AMD over the K7. In fact, it took the Core 2 Duo to truly outperform the K8 core across the board, although Dothan and Yonah came quite close in certain applications.

AMD had worked on dramatic successors to the K8, rumored to be K9 and K10, but both appeared to be scrapped or at least focus was shifted away from them in favor of a more evolutionary take on the K8 architecture. The main difference here that allowed Intel to catch up to AMD's performance is that while Intel's Pentium 4 team was operating on the usual schedule of a 5-year micro-architecture cycle, the Pentium M team at IDC was updating its architecture every year. Banias, Dothan, Yonah and Merom/Conroe all happened in a period of four years, and during that same time AMD's K8 remained unchanged.

If Intel had continued down the Pentium 4/NetBurst route, sticking to the usual 5-year design cycle would have probably worked just fine for AMD but Intel had the luxury of having two major micro-processor teams working in parallel, one of which had a much better idea. Luckily it would seem that AMD realized it needed to compete with Intel using smaller evolutionary steps every couple of years rather than leaving an architecture relatively untouched for 4 - 5 years and thus the Barcelona project was created. Although it's set to debut around a year after Intel's Core 2 Duo that swiped the performance crown, Barcelona is AMD's best chance at remaining competitive.

Barcelona's window of opportunity is slim, depending mostly on how Intel's transition to 45nm goes. Publicly Intel has stated that its architectural update to Core 2, codenamed Penryn, will begin shipping by the end of 2007. However, current roadmaps show availability at sometime in 2008 with no word on when significant quantities will be available. Should Intel take longer than expected with the move to its 45nm Penryn core, Barcelona's mid-2007 launch on servers and Q3 '07 launch for desktops may come at a relatively quiet time for Intel.

The Chip
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  • JarredWalton - Thursday, March 01, 2007 - link

    Games have quite a lot of LOAD instructions, like most programs, as well as plenty of branches (esp. in the AI routines). Most likely the boost that Core 2 gets is due in a large part to the better instruction reordering and branch prediction, although the cache and prefetchers probably help as well. Given AMD was better than NetBurst due to memory latency, through in better OOE (Out of Order Execution) logic and keep the improved latency and they should do pretty well.

    Naturally, everything at this point is purely speculation, but in the next few months we should start to get a better idea of what's in store and how it will perform. One problem that still remains is that even if AMD can be competitive clock-for-clock, Intel looks primed to be able to go up to at least 3.6 GHz dual core and 3.46 GHz quad core if necessary. AMD has traditionally not reached clock speeds nearly as high as Intel, possibly due in part to having more metal layers (speculation again - process tech and other features naturally play a role), so if they release 2.9GHz Barcelona at $1000 you can pretty much guarantee Intel will launch 3.2 and/or 3.46 GHz Kentsfield (and/or FSB1333 3.33 GHz).

    On the bright side, at least things should stay interesting in the CPU world. :D
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Thursday, March 01, 2007 - link

    Yes, interresting indeed, but from experience, AMD has always been too vocal in what they plan on doing, especially during the times they are in a 'rut'.

    What this usually means to me, is that AMD is trying to blow smoke up our backsides, we'll see though.

    Keep in mind, my main desktop system, and my backup server for that matter, both are AMD systems. The phrase "cost effective" applies here.
    Reply
  • kilkennycat - Thursday, March 01, 2007 - link

    Yesterday, Intel announced that they were converting a fourth fab to 45nm. A great deal of confidence in that process. And a few days ago they announced desktop shipments of Penryn-based CPUs pulled forward into 2007. Looks as if AMDs 'window of opportunity' is likely to be very small. IBM has not yet announced a successful implementation of a RAM on their 45nm process. Intel had their RAM design on 45nm up and running late 2005. Reply
  • archcommus - Thursday, March 01, 2007 - link

    True but the move to 45 nm might not make a huge difference in real world performance, just like the move to 65 nm didn't for AMD. Their next full blown architecture will still be a ways off. Reply
  • Roy2001 - Thursday, March 01, 2007 - link

    Dislike AMD's move to 65nm process, move to 45nm has shown that Penryn would eats less power and runs faster thanks to its high K material and metal gate. Reply
  • smitty3268 - Thursday, March 01, 2007 - link

    Every process shows that in theory before chips are actually being made on it. We'll see what actually happens when Penryn is released, not before. Reply
  • chucky2 - Thursday, March 01, 2007 - link

    Has AMD given any indication of how probable dropping an Agena or Kuma CPU into an existing AM2 motherboard will go?

    Especially AMD's own newly released 690G or the upcoming nVidia MCP68?

    Chuck
    Reply
  • mamisano - Thursday, March 01, 2007 - link

    It has been stated in the past that AM2+ based products will run in AM2 based boards. The limitation, if I understand it correctly, will be the lack of support of the new power features.

    Someone correct me if I am wrong :)
    Reply
  • chucky2 - Thursday, March 01, 2007 - link

    Then it should be no problem for AMD to confirm through AnandTech that this is the case.

    Surely if Barcelona is this close to shipping (only a few months away), AMD must know if Agena and/or Kuma will work in current AM2 motherboards, especially their own 690 series their just about to release.

    All I'm asking for is a definite either way, it shouldn't be that hard for AMD to do at this point.

    Chuck
    Reply
  • mino - Friday, March 02, 2007 - link

    AMD stated PUBLICLY to anyone who listened that AM2+ stuff will plug into AM2, just BIOS update needed.

    Why should they react to any consumer who ask on some forum the same question every second week ?

    Most important is they said it WILL(not "may") work with AM2-spec boards to big Tier 1 OEM's.
    They can not make it incompatible therefore. They would be out of bussines in no time.
    Reply

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