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January 25, 2007

Industry News - Josh

AMD announced some pretty hefty losses this quarter, but not totally unexpected.  The single time charges of the ATI acquisition were upwards of $550 million US was the majority of the stated $574 million loss.  But in terms of products AMD is staying in the mix.  The first 65 nm parts are hitting retail with the introduction of the X2 3600+.  I have one in my possession and it has a fabrication date of 0648 (2006, week 48).  This part is a dual core processor clocked at 1.9 GHz, but it features the full L1 and L2 caches of the Brisbane products (128KB L1 and 512 KB L2 per core).  Throughout February we will see far more 65 nm parts enter the market from AMD, as well as some new speed grades for AM2 sockets.

Rev. H chips look to be on track for an early Q3 release (July), with the possibility of late Q2 (June).  There has been confirmation that AMD will not only feature its Rev. H in quad core (Barcelona), but there will also be dual core versions.  This is something that I suspected AMD would do, since the current 65 nm Brisbane chips were really not competitive with Intel's Core 2 Duo, and the dual core market is still going to be VERY important for years to come.  Agena is apparently the codeword for that particular product, and though details are scarce, I would bet it will also include either 1 MB or 2 MB of the shared L3 cache.  If I were a betting man, I would guess 1 MB for these products.  Remember, the quad core utilizes 2 MB of L3 cache.  AMD claims that it has reworked about 90% of this design over previous generations of Athlon 64's, so we can safely say that per clock performance will definitely be improved.  Now, the question is how will performance compare to Intel's Core 2 Duo, and their upcoming Penryn (45 nm C2D) which looks to have an initial introduction in late Q3 and ramping up in Q1 2008.  AMD seems very confident in the performance of this part, and considering how conservative they have been in the past, I would bet that on a per-clock basis the Agena (high end dual core) and Kuma (midrange dual core) products will slightly outperform the C2D.  We of course are very curious about how the quad core (Agena FX) will compare against Intel's Kentsfield (quad core) products.

On the graphics side it seems that the R6x0 series of chips will be seeing the light of day in March, and there have been some leaks of mobile R6x0 parts that are very close (bad, naughty Asus) to be released.  It is not beyond imagination that AMD/ATI will release an entire bevy of products in March based on the new architecture and offer products from top to bottom.  From all indications the R600 will be a beast of a product, and could very well perform overall a bit better than the current king, the 8800 GTX from NVIDIA.  Cooling may be a big issue for this product though, and rumors are that it has a very hefty cooler and fan (much larger than anything seen so far) for the high end product.  It also looks to suck more power than the 8800 GTX, and requires a new 8 pin PCI-E power connector.

On the NVIDIA side we are about a month away from seeing the new midrange and budget products based on the G8x architecture.  There is a lot of information about the 8300 and 8600 parts around, and they look to be a sizeable upgrade from the 7300 and 7600 products.  Not just in terms of features, but also in overall performance.  The 7600 has had a good run as a top midrange part, but it looks to be overshadowed by the 8600 series.  There are also rumors that the G81 will be a 65 nm part and be the refresh for the 8800 series.  So, we can expect faster, cooler, and more power efficient GeForce 8900 GTX and GTS's by a June timeframe (if not slightly earlier).  It will be very interesting to match these up with AMD's R600 of the time.

January 11, 2007

AMD and 65 nm - Josh

With AMD finally begining their transition to 65 nm production, I thought I would take a few minutes and share with you a few things that I know, as well as have speculated upon.  While AMD's transition hasn't exactly been smooth, it has been far from disastrous.  AMD is a company that can take few unnecessary risks, and their deployment of new products on new fabrication nodes has historically been very conservative, but ultimately quite successful.  Here is a quote:

            Process node changes are invariably complex and time consuming, with each generation bringing up a plethora of technical challenges that must be overcome in order to succeed.  Compared to Intel, AMD is a small company with a limited amount of fabrication engineers and Fabs.  Considering that AMD has net revenues in the same league as Intelís net profit per quarter, we can see that AMD just does not have the cash or resources to go head to head with Intel when it comes to process technology.  This does not mean that AMD has thrown in the towel against its bigger rival, but it certainly has to do things a lot smarter to keep competitive.

You can read the entire article here.

December 19, 2006

News of Interest - Josh

NVIDIA is promoting a contest through SLI Zone called SLI Component a Day Giveaway.  While it is not a highly original name, the concept behind it is.  NVIDIA is giving away over $100,000 in hardware throughout the next year in this contest.  Hardware will include GeForce 8800's, 680i motherboards, memory, power supplies, and lots of other components (we can assume other graphics cards and motherboards as well).  All in all, this is a very adventuresome contest, and the amount of money being spent on this is non-trivial to say the least!  The only pre-req to this contest is that you have to have a SLI ready system and live in one of the countries listed in the rules (for some reason residents of New York and Florida cannot play).  Signing up is easy, and there are no strings attached (that I have seen so far).  NVIDIA and its partners are seriously giving back to the community that supports them with this contest, and if you have a SLI Ready or SLI Enabled PC, then sign up by December 22 to be given the chance to win (or anytime after that really, but to maximize your chances sign up soon!).  You will need to check SLI Zone daily to see if you have won, as you only have a short period of time to claim your prize.  It is very easy to sign up (I tried it out, but am pretty sure I am not eligible).

Hot Hardware has posted a GeForce 8800 GTS and GTX SLI Performance Update to the site.  Like most HH articles, this is a good one.  In it they cover XHD (extreme high definition) gaming with a handful of current titles.  NVIDIA just released updated drivers last week for the 8800 series, so it is quite interesting to see how products based on the new architecture are working together so far.

Bit-Tech has also posted a new review covering the BFG GeForce 8800 GTS.  They seemed quite happy with the product, and feel that it is a better buy than the more expensive 8800 GTX.  Considering that it is around $150 cheaper, I would have to agree!

techFEAR has a very nice review on the ThermalTake Armor Jr. PC case.  This smaller brother to the Armor series is not nearly as massive as its sibling, but for those not looking for a 50 pound case with all the features of the Armor series should take a good look at this review.  Lots of good pics and comments.

While this review is a few days old, Guru3D posted a very good article covering the Auzentech X-Meridian sound card.  Based on the same C-Media CMI-8788 chip as the Bluegears b-Enspirer, the X-Meridian includes many extras not present on the reference design.  Auzentech designed this card from the ground up, and while it is one of the most expensive cards on the market featuring this chipset, the extras are well worth it to the computer audio enthusiast.  Well worth the read!

HardOCP takes the Dell XPS M1710 gaming laptop around the block a few times, and sees if it is worth your hard earned scratch.  With lots of performance options with both CPUs and GPUs, laptops are certainly becoming much more attractive to people who typically use desktop PC's for everyday gaming.

Finally PC Perspective has a very interesting article about using raytracing with Quake 4.  While realtime raytracing is not quite ready for primetime, it seems that with the focus on fast multi-core processors we are quickly approaching the time for this potential transition.  This is also something that NVIDIA and ATI are looking into, and can possibly implement with their more general streaming architectures (think CUDA).  It is a fascinating article covering a very interesting technology.

December 16, 2006

Weekend News - Josh

It seems the rumors of NVIDIA not letting its partners overclock the 8800 series are untrue.  XFX has just announced two new 8800 products based on the GTX and GTS parts.  The XFX XXX 8800 GTX (enough X's in there for you?) runs at 630 MHz core and 1 GHz memory (2.0 GHz effective), which is a pretty hefty jump from the standard 590/900.  The second card is the XFX XXX 8800 GTS and it runs the core at 550 MHz and the memory at 900 MHz (1.8 GHz effective), well up from the 500/800 stock speeds.

This is not terribly surprising because NVIDIA has claimed that while there is still a lot of headroom in the custom stream processors, the rest of the chip is really holding it back.  Apparently the clock combinations they currently have are fairly well balanced, and while they experimented with increasing the stream processors clockspeed, they noticed very little performance increases because the rest of the supporting architecture couldn't feed those processors effectively.  The extra boost that XFX is applying to these products should make them the fastest "stock" cards on the market.  Something of interest is that pictures of the boards show that they are on a green PCB, so this is probably one of the first "custom" designed card that has hit the market.  As you may or may not know, NVIDIA provides its partners with the first several batches of new video cards, and this allows the partners time to spec and start building their own cards for introduction at a later date.  It isn't that the design is radically different, but rather the choice of components can change dramatically with each company's individual build.  So, perhaps XFX uses some higher spec components to allow a little more headroom with their clocks.  XFX also claims that the video bios is also custom and has some enhanced tweaks.  Hopefully we can grab a sample and test those claims.

ATI has released the Catalyst 6.12 drivers which fix a host of CrossFire issues.  ATI/AMD has certainly been busy with the last two releases after a very late Cat 6.10 release in October.  Seems they are hitting their release dates quite nicely.  Makes you wonder if they will have a Cat 6.13 for after the holidays!  Unlikely, but it has happened before (to much rejoicing from the folks that love new driver builds).

HardOCP is reporting some problems with the NVIDIA nForce 680i based products.  It appears as though quality may be very much hit and miss between boards, with some identical boards working well... and others not well at all.  There are reports that all 680i based boards from different manufacturers show issues, and so far NVIDIA has claimed that it is a software problem.

The nice folks at Hot Hardware have written up a comprehensive guide to the latest 7900 series of cards (covering the 7900 GS, 7900 GT, and 7950 GT).  It has been 1.5 years since the first 7800's hit the market, and in that time we have seen some changes and improvements in performance due to software, so if you are looking to buy a vid card this holiday season, it makes sense to take a look at their findings.

December 13, 2006

Bluegears b-Enspirer Soundcard Review - Josh

Some time back I received this card, but due to some driver issues I had been unable to complete the review.  Now that C-Media and Bluegears have released updated drivers for this card, many of the issues that held me back were solved!  Bluegears is intent on delivering a very high quality card at a very attractive price, and I think they have achieved that goal quite nicely.  The b-Enspirer is significantly cheaper than other products based on the C-Media CMI-8788 chip, as well as the recently "re-introduced" Creative X-Fi products.  How Bluegears can achieve this price is beyond me, but the card is packed with quality components as well as useable features.  Not only that, but it has far more connectivity options than the competing X-Fi's at its price range.  Sound interesting?  It honestly is!

            Bluegears made some waves in 2005 by introducing the first standalone Dolby Digital 5.1 encoding soundcard in North America, the X-Mystique.  Previously the only products that could do this were the nForce 2 and some other motherboard integrated products.  Of those products, only the nForce 2 could do DD 5.1 very well at all, as the other options were host based and relied on software to enable that functionality.  The X-Mystique was actually designed and built by HDA of Korea, but Bluegears was the distributor for North America and they were able to brand the card as their own.  The X-Mystique was a fairly successful card, and the ability to encode DD 5.1 made it an instant favorite of the HTPC crowd.  Apparently the success of this card gave HDA the impetus to dive into the North American market themselves, as well as rebrand their company as Auzentech.  While the exact details are unknown what happened between Bluegears and Auzentech, the result was that Bluegears no longer sold the HDA/Auzentech soundcards.

You can read the entire review here.

December Contests

Abit has a fun little Christmas Contest that features hundreds of prizes, all you need to do is sign up to get in the running!  Users with Abit motherboards get extra entires into the contest as well.  This is a nice gesture from Abit to its fans and users, and considering the amount of prizes they are offering, there is a good chance that most people will win something!

Futuremark is holding a comic strip contest, just download the comic strip template and let your imagination run free.  While Futuremark does not feature hundreds of prizes, they are offering a sweet Alienware laptop as the grand prize!  Aspiring artists (and no-talent hacks) should sing up as soon as possible!

November 30, 2006

AMD Quad FX - Josh

Not many sites received AMD's Quad FX platform for review, mainly because the units they sent out were pretty hefty!  A large Thermaltake case, 4 GB of fast DDR-2, 2 x GeForce 7900 GTX, 150 GB Raptors in RAID 0, PC Power and Cooling 1 Kw power supply, the actual FX-7x processors, plus the very expensive Asus motherboard.

The FX-7x series are comprised of the FX-70 (2.6 GHz), FX-72 (2.8 GHz), and the new speed grade FX-74 (3.0 GHz).  These are essentially the same chips as the latest Socket F Opterons, except they support non-ECC memory.  As such there are no power or performance improvements from other Rev. F based Athlon 64s.  The new speed grade allows the FX-74 to more adequately compete with Intel's latest Core 2 Extreme QX6700 (Intel's quad core C2D clocked at 2.67 GHz).  These chips are designed to run on the newly announced NVIDIA 680a chipset, which is essentially comprised of 2 x nForce Professional 3400s (not nForce 590 SLI as some sites are saying).  This combination gives 2 x 16X PCI-E slots, 2 x 8X PCI-E slots, and several 1X PCI-E slots if desired by the motherboard manufacturer (as well as PCI slots).  It also features 12 SATA ports which support multiple RAID arrays.  Asus is the first to release this type of board, and we may see other manufacturers develop boards in the future... but this may not happen if AMD's Quad FX does not take off in significant quantities.

Between the CPU's and the motherboard chipsets, the Quad FX systems consume ungodly amounts of power.  At idle these machines are pulling 450 watts, and at full bore (with one graphics card) they are hitting nearly 600 watts.  Just imagine what this would do when paired with 2 x 8800 GTX cards!  The user could potentially see 750 watts being pulled in this setup with 8800 GTX's in place.  It is no wonder that AMD shipped these with 1 Kw power supplies.

Overall performance in multi-threaded apps is very close to Intel's QX6700, but it fares a bit more poorly in many games.  When you consider how much power it consumes versus the Intel solution, we can see performance per watt takes a huge hit on the AMD side.  Quite the change from a year ago when AMD had the best power/performance ratio.  Still, it is an interesting solution for those "mega-taskers" that AMD is aiming this at.  Also, due to the limited NUMA (non-uniform memory architecture) support in WinXP, the full potential of the product has not yet been seen.  Windows Vista will have better support for NUMA, but it will not be a cure-all for the Quad FX.  It will help in certain situations and applications, but it will likely not allow FX-74's to overtake the QX6700 in overall performance.

These processors will be offered in pairs for one price; the FX-70 will be $599, the FX-72 will be $799, and the FX-74 will be $999.  This is going to make things interesting, as the current FX-62 retails for around $700.  The obvious contradiction here is why would one 2.8 GHz Athlon 64 be only $99 cheaper than two of them?  I am guessing that AMD will make some hefty price cuts on their other products once the FX-7x series actually come to market (this is not a hard launch).

To give us a taste of what is to come, AMD showed off working Barcelona (65 nm quad core) processors today.  The machine on display was a 4 socket server populated with a total of 16 cores.  AMD says that it will be much more competitive with Intel's Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad, both in performance and power consumption.  For users that will jump onto the Quad FX ship, they can upgrade their machine to Octo cores at that time.  Barcelona will feature 2 MB of shared L3 cache, with each core having 64KB + 64 KB of L1 (Data and Instruction) and 512 KB of L2.  It will also allow single cycle 128 bit floating point SSE operations, as well as improved prefetch and branch prediction.  This is a major redesign of the Athlon 64 core, and hopefully their performance estimates will be on target.  The one problem this core will be facing is that in late Q3, early Q4 of 2007 Intel will be releasing its 45 nm "Penryn" chip, which is the successor to the Core 2 Duo.  This will simply not be a rehash of C2D, but rather a refined design with improvements such as SSE4.  AMD will have another fight on its hands, and hopefully the engineers will have been aggressive enough with the Barcelona design to compete with these upcoming products from Intel.

The good news for AMD is that they will be releasing their first 65 nm parts on Dec. 5.  These will initially be lower clocked Athlon 64 X2's ranging in speed from 2.0 GHz to 2.4 GHz.  A little later we will see 2.6 GHz to 2.8 GHz products (probably January/February).  AMD is fabrication constrained with two Fabs, only one of which will be producing 65 nm parts in the near future.  As such AMD feels that it needs to address demand with lower clocked processors while tweaking the process to improve yields and eventually speed bins.  AMD hopes to have its 65 nm process nice and shiny for the introduction of Barcelona next summer.  We can assume that all of the Barcelona production will occur in Fab 36, while many of AMD's lower end parts will start to be produced by Chartered, where speed bins will likely be much lower.  Currently AMD has not said if they will make a native dual core product based on Barcelona, but we can certainly hope that they will in fact create such a chip.  A dual core Barcelona with 1 MB shared L3 would probably be pretty snappy and a whole lot easier to produce, not to mention that not everyone needs or wants a quad core chip!



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