AMD's Phenom Unveiled: A Somber Farewell to K8by Anand Lal Shimpi on November 19, 2007 1:25 AM EST
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If you were looking for a changing of the guard today it's just not going to happen. Phenom is, clock for clock, slower than Core 2 and the chips aren't yet yielding well enough to boost clock speeds above what Intel is capable of. While AMD just introduced its first 2.2GHz and 2.3GHz quad-core CPUs today, Intel previewed its first 3.2GHz quad-core chips. We were expecting Intel to retain the high end performance crown, but also expected AMD to chip away at the lower end of the quad-core market - today's launch confirms that Intel is still the king of the quad-core market.
As we've seen from our mainstream CPU comparisons however, all of this could change with some clever pricing - something AMD seems to have forgone with its Phenom launch.
Phenom manages to fill a major gap in AMD's desktop CPU product lineup: the company can now offer quad-core CPUs. And with the needed updates to the K8 architecture AMD is now competitive in some areas that it sorely needed improving in. Windows Media and x264 encoding are both strong points of the Phenom architecture, making it on par with Intel's quad-core offerings. The same can be said about some games, but at the same time Intel really pulls ahead in our DivX and other game tests.
Inevitably some of these Phenoms will sell, even though Intel is currently faster and offers better overall price-performance (does anyone else feel weird reading that?). Honestly the only reason we can see to purchase a Phenom is if you currently own a Socket-AM2 motherboard; you may not get the same performance as a Core 2 Quad, but it won't cost as much since you should be able to just drop in a Phenom if you have BIOS support.
If you ask AMD, this is platform story; after all, who wouldn't want to combine a Phenom with the 790FX chipset and a pair of Radeon 3850 graphics cards. The problem is that you can pair up 3850s on an Intel chipset just as easily, leaving the biggest benefit to 790FX the ability to run 3 or 4 3850s, which we're not even sure is a good idea yet. There are some auto-overclocking features, but talking about Phenom's overclocking isn't really accenting one of its strong points. The platform sell is a great one to an OEM, but it's simply not compelling enough to the end user - if Phenom were more attractive, things would be different.
To make the CPU more attractive AMD desperately needs to drop the price, and from what we've heard, that will happen in Q1. From what we've seen, AMD needs to be at least 200MHz ahead of Intel in order to remain competitive - that means bringing out a Phenom 9900 that's cheaper than the Q6600, at least. If AMD can do that, it's quite possible that in early 2008 we'll have the first sub-$200 quad-core part as the 9500 drops in price.
Oh and just in case AMD is listening: the Phenom 9600 has no business being here, the extra 100MHz only clutters up the product line. Once the 9700 and 9900 are out let's try and stick to 200MHz increments shall we?
Here's what really frightens us: the way AMD has priced Phenom leaves Intel with a great opportunity to increase prices with Penryn without losing the leadership position. Intel could very well introduce the Core 2 Quad Q9300 (2.33GHz) at $269 and still remain quite competitive with Phenom, moving the Q9450 into more expensive waters. Intel has't announced what it's doing with Penryn pricing in Q1, but our fear is that a weak showing from Phenom could result in an upward trend in processor prices. And this is exactly why we needed AMD to be more competitive with Phenom.
It's tough to believe that what we're looking at here is a farewell to the K8. When AMD first released the Athlon 64, its performance was absolutely mind blowing. It kept us from recommending Intel processors for at least 3 years; Phenom's arrival, however, is far more somber. Phenom has a difficult job to do, it needs to keep AMD afloat for the next year. Phenom is much like the solemn relative, visiting during a time of great sorrow within the family; let's hope for AMD's sake that it can lift spirits in the New Year.