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AMD's Spider Platform


Two Out of Three Ain't Bad


by Josh Walrath


            While I try to stay away from Meatloaf lyrics, I just could not resist the urge.  The song, and the underlying theme of Meatloaf, is actually quite appropriate for AMD’s latest launch.  Confused yet?  I would be too if it were not for the fact that I am the one writing this.  Love or hate Meatloaf, you have to admit that many of his tunes are quite catchy, and even thirty years since the release of “Bat Out of Hell” it is obvious that his music has some staying power.  So how does Meatloaf have anything to do with AMD?  I’m not entirely sure yet, but I think I can connect the dots by the time I finish writing this article.

            AMD was kind enough to invite me out to their Lake Tahoe Spider Platform conference, and while there I was able to dig into the mystery of the Phenom and its supporting cast members.  I had the chance to sit down at 2.6 GHz powered machine with two HD 3870 cards in attendance, all happily running on an Asus 790FX motherboard.  While it was a gratifying experience, there were some issues with the way things were set up.  Here comes the smut, Martha! 

Benchmarking 101

            The art of benchmarking has a few simple rules, but they are pretty stout rules.  One of the biggest is that for any benchmark to be valid there must be a pretty reliable point of reference for the results to make much sense.  For example, if you want to test a CPU against another, then the majority of the components should be the same.  Power supply, hard drives, memory, etc.  Because of the way AMD set up the test machines, I had no real way of replicating their numbers in a meaningful way.

            The press was allowed to put on any benchmark they saw fit, and quite a few of them did just that.  For myself, I found that option to be pointless because of the lack of hardware at the home front to test against.  I did not have a pair of WD 150 GB Raptors or the power supply used, nor did I have a pair of HD 3870s waiting for me at home.  Needless to say, accurate numbers are not on the way in this article.  Another point of contention was the use of Vista Ultimate 32 bit.  Why on earth would they push 32 bit when AMD actually has a slight advantage when running the 64 bit OS?  Add to that a lot of the standard benchmarks were not included on the machines already, and the benchmarks they had used files that are not readily available to users hoping to replicate these results (such as videos and music files for the encoding/decoding tests).

            The final problem was that the machines were fitted with a 2.6 GHz processor… which will not be available until at least late Q1 2008.  Of course, AMD is not the only one guilty of pushing a processor’s performance that is not due to be released until next year (isn’t it ironic that Intel decided to lift the embargo of the QX9770 the same day as the Phenom launch?).  And finally considering the TLB errata that occurs with the B2 stepping Phenoms at 2.4 GHz and above, are the 2.6 GHz results even valid?

Terry "Why did I ever agree to 12 driver builds a year?" Makedon takes a break from the benchmarking tedium that pervades the Tahoe event.

            I do understand the reasons behind some of AMD’s choices here, as they are pushing a platform rather than one product.  It would not be in their best interest to show off a pair of graphics cards in CrossFire without the fastest possible processor to push them.  Nor does it do them any good to not push the motherboard’s features and performance without a fast engine powering it.  I am still rather confused why they used Vista 32 rather than the 64 bit version, but perhaps that relates to the driver support for the graphics cards?

            All complaints aside, the event was held for the purpose of launching a platform.  AMD certainly did succeed at that, as most of the attendees were impressed by the features and overall performance of the Spider Platform.  It is just unfortunate that the three legged stool that holds up AMD’s aspirations had one leg significantly shorter than the other two. 

Tripping Down Memory Lane

            Phenom was supposed to herald AMD’s second coming (or was that the third?).  A native quad core processor with an integrated memory controller, Hyper Transport 3.0 connectivity, and a host of enhancements that would increase IPC, as well as a split power plane design which would improve overall power efficiency and scaling.  All of these aspects combined were supposed to make the Phenom more than a match for the mighty Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad processors from Intel, both 65 nm and 45 nm versions!

            Before we frame this release, let us reminisce about AMD’s previous big architectural change.  Yes, I am talking about the Athlon 64 3200+ and the quickly released followup, the Athlon 64 3400+.  In my opinion this was the most successful launch in AMD’s history, and probably the most groundbreaking.

The event was small and quite friendly, with only a handful of major vendors in attendance.

            The A64 3200+ was released in late Fall of 2003, and its primary competition was in the form of the Pentium 4 3.2 GHz Northwood based core.  AMD’s previous high end part was the Athlon XP 3200+ running at a (not so) cool 2.2 GHz.  This part was a 130 nm product, but it was before the use of SOI.  AMD released the Athlon 64 3200+ at 2.0 GHz, but it used the new 130 nm SOI process.  In benchmarks the new 3200+ absolutely wiped the floor with both the XP 3200+ and the P4 3.2 GHz, plus it ran cooler and pulled less power than either of its competitors.

            This was really a defining moment for AMD, as they delivered on all of their promises in one fell swoop.  Here was a true next generation architecture that supported true 64 bit computing, an advanced process that delivered significant power and heat gains, and an overall product that not only met expectations… but surpassed them.  The A64 3400+ and the FX-51 further cemented AMD’s new and improved reputation.  And now we come to this latest release… 

An Introduction to the Spider Platform

            Before going into my analysis of this release, I thought it would be handy to go over the base technology that the Spider Platform consists of.  There are three parts, as I had earlier mentioned.  The foundation is the new 700 series chipsets designed by the former ATI, now “The Graphics Division of AMD”.  The second portion is the new graphics cards based on the RV670 chip.  The final leg is of course the long awaited Phenom processor from AMD.


Next:  The 790FX Chipset


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