A very smart man once told me that absolute performance doesn’t matter, it’s performance at a given price point that makes a product successful. While AMD hasn’t held the absolute performance crown for several years now, that doesn’t mean the company’s products haven’t been successful.

During the days of the original Phenom, AMD started the trend of offering more cores than Intel at a given price point. Intel had the Core 2 Duo, AMD responded with the triple core Phenom X3. As AMD’s products got more competitive, the more-for-less approach didn’t change. Today AMD will sell you three or four cores for the price of two from Intel.

In some situations, this works to AMD’s benefit. The Athlon II X3 and X4 deliver better performance in highly threaded applications than the Intel alternatives. While Intel has better performance per clock, you can’t argue with more cores/threads for applications that can use them.

When Intel announced its first 6-core desktop processor, the Core i7 980X at $999, we knew a cheaper AMD alternative was coming. Today we get that alternative, this is the Phenom II X6 based on AMD’s new Thuban core:

It’s still a 45nm chip but thanks to architecture and process tweaks, the new Phenom II X6 still fits in the same power envelope as last year’s Phenom II X4 processors: 125W.

Update: AMD tells us that it gave us the wrong pricing on the 1090T. The part sells for $295, not $285, in 1000 unit quantities.

CPU Specification Comparison
Processor Clock Speed Max Turbo L2 Cache L3 Cache TDP Price
AMD Phenom II X6 1090T 3.2GHz 3.6GHz 3MB 6MB 125W $295
AMD Phenom II X6 1055T 2.8GHz 3.3GHz 3MB 6MB 125W $199
AMD Phenom II X4 965 BE 3.4GHz N/A 2MB 6MB 125W/140W $185
AMD Phenom II X4 955 BE 3.2GHz N/A 2MB 6MB 125W $165
AMD Phenom II X4 945 3.0GHz N/A 2MB 6MB 95W $155
AMD Phenom II X4 925 2.8GHz N/A 2MB 6MB 95W $145

You also don’t give up much clock speed. The fastest Phenom II X6 runs at 3.2GHz, just 200MHz shy of the fastest X4.

When Intel added two cores to Nehalem it also increased the L3 cache of the chip by 50%. The Phenom II X6 does no such thing. The 6 cores have to share the same 6MB L3 cache as the quad-core version.

The Phenom II X6 die. Monolithic, hexa-core

There’s also the issue of memory bandwidth. Intel’s Core i7 980X is paired with a triple channel DDR3 memory controller, more than enough for four cores under normal use and enough for a six core beast. In order to maintain backwards compatibility, the Phenom II X6 is still limited to the same dual channel memory controller as its quad-core predecessor.

CPU Specification Comparison
CPU Codename Manufacturing Process Cores Transistor Count Die Size
AMD Phenom II X6 1090T Thuban 45nm 6 904M 346mm2
AMD Phenom II X4 965 Deneb 45nm 4 758M 258mm2
Intel Core i7 980X Gulftown 32nm 6 1.17B 240mm2
Intel Core i7 975 Bloomfield 45nm 4 731M 263mm2
Intel Core i7 870 Lynnfield 45nm 4 774M 296mm2
Intel Core i5 670 Clarkdale 32nm 2 384M 81mm2
AMD Phenom II X4 965 Deneb 45nm 4 758M 258mm2

The limitations are nitpicks in the grand scheme of things. While the 980X retails for $999, AMD’s most expensive 6-core processor will only set you back $285 and you can use them in all existing AM2+ and AM3 motherboards with a BIOS update. You're getting nearly 1 billion transistors for $200 - $300. Like I said earlier, it’s not about absolute performance, but performance at a given price point.

AMD 2010 Roadmap
CPU Clock Speed Max Turbo (<= 3 cores) L3 Cache TDP Release
AMD Phenom II X6 1090T 3.2GHz 3.6GHz 6MB 125W Q2
AMD Phenom II X6 1075T 3.0GHz 3.5GHz 6MB 125W Q3
AMD Phenom II X6 1055T 2.8GHz 3.3GHz 6MB 125W/95W Q2
AMD Phenom II X6 1035T 2.6GHz 3.1GHz 6MB 95W Q2
AMD Phenom II X4 960T 3.0GHz 3.4GHz 6MB 95W Q2

We'll soon see more flavors of the Phenom II X6 as well as a quad-core derivative with 2 of these cores disabled. As a result, motherboard manufacturers are already talking about Phenom II X4 to X6 unlocking tools.

The new Phenom II X6 processors are aimed squarely at Intel’s 45nm Lynnfield CPUs. Both based on a 45nm process, AMD simply offers you more cores for roughly the same price. Instead of a quad-core Core i7 860, AMD will sell you a six-core 1090T. Oh and the T stands for AMD’s Turbo Core technology.

AMD’s Turbo: It Works
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  • Scali - Tuesday, April 27, 2010 - link

    I think the same argument goes for the server market...
    AMD cannot compete with Intel on performance, so they have to compete on price, meaning low profits.
    AMD *could* compete with Intel in the server market, but that was before Nehalem. Now Intel has some very strong offerings in the server market...
    So it's the same story either way... should AMD really try to build such large high-end CPUs, when they know they won't be able to compete on performance anyway, and performing on price is dangerous when your competitor is always a manufacturing node ahead.

    AMD *could* have had the Atom market, but they actually killed off their Geode line of CPUs just before Atom was introduced and pretty much owned the netbook market.
  • realitycheck - Tuesday, April 27, 2010 - link

    Everyone keeps mentioning the fact that AMD needs a new architecture and that they cant remain competitive with the current yet aging Phenom core, and AMD is wasting time and money by just throwing more cores at the problem.

    I think you guys are missing the bigger picture, the Phenom II x6 is meant solely as a stop gap, an effort to remain somewhat competitive and keep revenue flowing while they finish baking Bobcat and Bulldozer, due out next year. AMD knows that the Phenom II its a show stopper, or even a headlining act, thats why these CPU's were released without any major fanfare, they arent trying to fool anyone into thinking these chips are something they're not, they're simply trying to hold down the fort.

    I think that once complete, the Bobcat / Bulldozer line will be what puts AMD back on the competitive front. just simply looking at the code names they chose, the last time AMD got bold and used suggestively strong code names, tack hammer / claw hammer / sledge hammer, the end products, Turion 64 / Athlon 64 / Opteron lived up to the expectations, and in fact they proved to be game changers. I believe the same will hold true with Bobcat / Bulldozer.

    Another point i'd like to make is, over the past 10 years AMD has matured quite a bit, growing up from being a completely non-threatening low end sub-generic CPU builder, with seemingly no chance of ever amounting to much more than that in a tightly controlled Intel world. From those dark days AMD has grown to become a global player in the market and a competitive threat to intel. they've come along way from the AMD of the 90's. Most people think that the whole Barcelona / Phenom fiasco, with the TLB erratum and delayed launch cycles has spelled the end of a competitive AMD. I think that whole fiasco is exactly what AMD needed, people learn the most from their failures, not from their victories, just look at intel, they had all but stagnated all thru the 90's and the first half of the 2000's. It wasnt until AMD came along and kicked them right square in their out of shape and boated ass and then out ran them for a few years, that they go back in shape so to speak and started making competitive and compelling products again. So only time will tell if AMD has what it takes to be a competitor, or just a fluke...

    As for this review, why did you use such old drivers for the AMD chipset and graphics card? i mean seriously, the chipset drivers you used were developed a couple years before the 890FX chipset you were using was released? how about using 10.3 over 8.11 and 9.12? or is there something special about the 8.11 and 9.12 drivers? given the gap between your versions and the current, i'd says your somewhat kneecapping the tests..
  • Scali - Wednesday, April 28, 2010 - link

    "I think you guys are missing the bigger picture, the Phenom II x6 is meant solely as a stop gap, an effort to remain somewhat competitive and keep revenue flowing while they finish baking Bobcat and Bulldozer, due out next year. "

    I don't think we're missing the bigger picture, we're pointing out exactly the same:
    X6 is a stop-gap, what AMD *really* needs to become competitive again, is Bobcat/Bulldozer. We're just saying that they need it NOW, rather than next year (and they have to be a success aswell, not the fiasco that Phenom was... a new architecture is no guarantee for success obviously).
    AMD has been struggling ever since the Core was introduced in 2007(!). They REALLY need a good, new architecture now, it is long overdue.
  • gruffi - Wednesday, April 28, 2010 - link

    I think you are missing a lot. What the hell are you talking about? Intel is throwing more transistors at the problem, not AMD. Compare the cores, Intel needs >50% more transistors per core. They need 8 threads for Nehalem to get full performance, AMD only 6 for Thuban. Intel is just brute-force. Already today AMD has a smarter and more effective design. And the really interesting designs (Bulldozer, Llano, Bobcat) are not even launched. The only problem for AMD is software related, not hardware. The widely used compilers under Windows, MSC and ICC, optimize much more for Intel. And your knowledge about servers also seems to be outdated. Compare Magny-Cours and Gulftown. The Opteron is more powerful and more power-efficient. And it is still 45 nm. You really want to claim AMD isn't executing well? Then you must be joking or an Intel flamer. X6 and i7 are not for people that utilize one or two threads most of the time. Thuban is not meant to be a mainstream CPU. Therefore, Deneb, Propus and Regor are there. Thuban is for highly threaded workloads. And then an X6 1090T ($295) can outperform an i7 860 ($284) and also an i7 870 ($562). If you ask me, the X6 1090T offers very good value for such scenarios. The X4 1055T ($199) offers even more value.
  • Scali - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Intel doesn't "need" more transistors, they are just in the position that they can implement a lot more cache than AMD, without getting into latency problems or getting too much power consumption.
    This 6-core 125W TDP processor has problems keeping up with Core i7 8xx series, which are only 95W TDP.
    So how is AMD more energy-efficient? Only if you compare it unfavourably.
  • magic box - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    if you wanna pay for intel advertisment ya pay more then.

    it like people pay for HP or Dell a rip off

    when we all no the asus or the msi in the corner that nobody talks about is so much better.

    us ur head

    apple ipad the over sized ipod touch that people love to buy only because of advertisment yet you can buy a windows touch tablet at harf the price.

    the intel chip has had bad times too the have sold bad chips with cores that dont work and so had amd they are both the same.

    but if you wanna get sucked into intels rip offs then thats ur own fult

    it will be funny when i have the amd 8 core and lock 4 of the core and then ill compare it to any intel chip by the time intel make anythink better then that people will not be paying $3000 for the same thing at $400
  • magic box - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    you talk about intel quadcore being better then AMD 6 core you really need to look at locking and unlocking locking 2 of the 6 AMDs cores it will crap all over the intel
  • strikeback03 - Tuesday, April 27, 2010 - link

    I would guess the hex-core is a lot more useful in servers, and there is a consumer version of the chip since the bulk of the development is expected to be funded from server sales.
  • JGabriel - Tuesday, April 27, 2010 - link

    It might be better to think about this way:

    Most office and browser applications run quite fast enough, even on slower chips. A 67% performance difference will frequently amount to only a few microseconds, or less, in execution time.

    As for gaming, casual and moderate gamers will be happy as long as they hit 30 frames per second at 1080p at moderate detail, which mid-range dual cores can handle in most games.

    So the big differentiator is multi-media: very intensive applications where speed or extra cores, depending on the app, can significantly reduce runtime. For instance, the hypothetical 67% performance improvement mentioned above can change a 90 minute encoding job into a 54 minute job. Or result in lower times while using Photoshop. Or let you run a scheduled anti-virus scan in the background without impacting your gaming or video performance.

    For many people, possibly most, more cores (or more threads) is more useful than clock speed, because they'll only *notice* the difference when running processor-intensive, heavily-threaded apps, or when heavily multi-tasking. And that is becoming increasingly more common as multi-media becomes a primary home use for PC's

    If that's not a factor in their typical usage, then users are probably better off with an i3, or - and here comes the extra core advantage again - an Athlon II X3, which performs similarly to the i3, but for $40-$50 less.

    As for profit margins, AMD just posted one of its best quarters ever, so the "more cores for the dollar" strategy, which provides more processing power where users are most likely to actually notice it, seems to be working to some extent. No, AMD won't overtake Intel, but it can be a profitable mainstream niche - and Intel is not likely to challenge them too seriously, for the time being, given its current problems with anti-trust in the US and Europe.

  • strikeback03 - Tuesday, April 27, 2010 - link

    Do AMD's numbers for the quarter include graphics sales? As that should have been very profitable for them, being mostly the only game in town and able to sell above MSRP.

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