Last year AMD made some news with the first 6 core server chips, based on the Istanbul core design. This made it into the Opteron lineup as the 2400 and 8400 series of products, and has been available for around 9 months now. Istanbul basically took the previous 4 core Phenom II design and tweaked it a bit, plus adding the obvious two extra cores. The combination of a redesign focused on per clock performance and energy efficiency gave AMD a nice option in the server realm. These parts typically had ACP’s of 75 watts to 105 watts (which would roughly translate to a traditional TDP of around 95 watts to 125 watts). The extra performance the tweaks give the chips should put them around the Core 2 series of parts featuring similar clockspeeds.
Istanbul is the basis for the upcoming “Thuban” desktop processor featuring 6-cores.
The manufacturing side of the equation is handled by GLOBALFOUNDRIES, and their engineers have been key in the evolution of Istanbul becoming much more than a couple of server SKUs. Before AMD split its manufacturing, it was traditional that once a CPU design was finished, it was handed over to the manufacturing engineers at the Fab. But quite a bit of the design work is changed by those manufacturing engineers based on results from test runs. These changes have a direct effect on yields and speed bins primarily, and not so much changes in per clock performance. In the nine months after Istanbul was released to the world, the manufacturing engineers have been very busy.
Yields are apparently not an issue with this design, even though it is a significantly larger die than the previous Shanghai based Phenom II. Because it was based on a proven design, most of those yield kinks have already been worked out well in advance. What engineers have been working on are power consumption and clockspeed. Previous Istanbul based Opterons have maxed out at 2.8 GHz and 105 watts ACP. The first product we have seen which introduces the more refined chips coming out of the fab are the Magny-Cours 8 core and 12 core parts. These CPUs are made with two separate dies on the same substrate, but with fairly decent clockspeeds (think 2.4 GHz max) and competitive TDPs/ACPs.
The next obvious step is to bring these 6-core products to the desktop once power and speed issues are settled. The AMD 890GX chipset release introduced us to the official name of these products, which is unsurprisingly “Phenom II X6”. Quite a few things about these upcoming chips have been leaked to the public through multiple channels. The first is that there are going to be 2 separate chips at this release, namely “Thuban” which is the native 6-core, and “Zosma” which is a separate 4 core chip (though it would not be surprising that Thuban dies with defective cores will be sold as Zosma SKUs). Zosma apparently includes all of the performance tweaks that Istanbul introduced, but in a native quad core design.
Essentially what is happening in the next few months will be AMD refreshing their high end portfolio of desktop chips with new 6-core and 4-core chips. These should offer better per-clock performance (but we are talking a few % points here and there, and not a major redesign which will challenge Nehalem parts), and competitive power consumption compared to previous parts. The 4 core Zosma could be a better overclocker due to optimizations in the design and power consumption, but we will have to wait and see how that fares. The 6-core processors will not clock as high as the current Phenom II X4 965, which is at 3.4 GHz. Instead, it looks like the highest initial speed of the Phenom II X6 products will be 3.0 GHz. There will definitely be a “Black Edition” part which is unlocked, and we could see overclocks in the 3.4 GHz to 3.5 GHz range, and potentially higher with more aggressive cooling. Eventually there will be a speed boost to 3.2 GHz, but I expect the design to max out at that speed. This is not a huge deal, as AMD will be busy sampling Bulldozer core designs and hopefully getting those released by late Q4 of this year, and definitely by Q1 2011.
“Bulldozer” should be quite competitive with 32 nm Westmere derivatives, and hopefully will fare well against Intel’s next generation “Sandy Bridge”. Tired of so many codenames by now? But we are still 8 to 9 months away from seeing the fruits of this particular labor.
Where AMD hopes to do the most damage is in price. Currently Intel’s only desktop 6-core parts retails at essentially $1000. AMD looks to release the 2.8 GHz X6 at a $199 price point. The higher clocked Black Edition looks to peg out around $295. While the Phenom II X6 3.0 GHz will not compete well against the i7-980 in terms of performance, it will cost 1/3 of the Intel part. Add into the mix that AMD will be including “Turbo” style functionality in these parts, it would not be surprising if when cores are under-utilized that the Phenom II X6 can clock individual cores to 3.4 GHz. This certainly makes things much more interesting from a consumer’s standpoint, especially when paired with upcoming AMD 800 series of chipsets which offer the first native SATA-6G functionality.
Rumors have a release date of around April 26 pegged for other AMD 800 chipset releases, as well as the Phenom II X6. AMD just keeps chugging along, and now that they don’t have the massive cost of running their own fab off their back, they have a bit more breathing room in terms of R&D budget. The Phenom II X4 and X6’s based on the tweaked design will keep AMD in many an enthusiast’s mind, plus add in the value factor of their latest motherboards, as well as their extremely popular Athlon II line, and we can see that AMD is staying afloat even in the midst of Intel’s Core i3/5/7 charge.