Can AMD's upcoming Bulldozer processors possibly compete with the latest second-generation Intel Core chips, the bonkers-quick CPU otherwise known as Sandy Bridge?
Bulldozer isn't due out until later this year but we can now give you the beginnings of an answer: yes, no and maybe.
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If that sounds like a non-answer, bear with us. Bulldozer promises to be the most revolutionary CPU architecture in living memory. Its design fundamentally challenges the very concept of a CPU core. Even with full architectural disclosure, estimating performance is tricky, bordering on impossible. However, intentionally or otherwise, AMD has let slip a few metrics which can help piece together a picture of performance.
Before we come to that, it's worth putting Bulldozer into context. If you've seen the ludicrous performance numbers cranked out by the first Sandy Bridge chips, you'll know just how massive the task is for Bulldozer.
Intel's new CPU architecture is monster quick and débuts a number of game changing technologies, including the Quick Sync Video transcoder engine.
Make or break in 2011
Bulldozer, of course, is just one part of a massive product refresh for AMD in 2011. The first salvo will be a number of new APUs or accelerated processing units. Also known as Fusion chips, the basic idea is combining graphics and CPU functionality in a single chip.
There's been debate whether Intel's Westmere processors, launched early in 2010, were true fusion chips. But there's no doubt about the new Intel Sandy Bridge family. It's the real fusion deal.
However, while it has a super-strong track record in CPUs, graphics has been a bit of a nightmare for Intel. Sandy Bridge admittedly has a massively improved 3D, but Intel still has work to do to earn full credibility in graphics. Currently, AMD's strengths are precisely the opposite. Great graphics, weak CPUs.
Anyway, AMD has already announced Brazos, a dual-core Fusion chip based on its new low-power Bobcat architecture. It's designed to take on Intel's Atom in netbooks and cheap notebooks and should deliver much improved video performance to the budget end of the market.
Next up is Llano. Based on AMD's existing full-power Stars core as seen in current Phenom II processors, Llano's party trick will be uber-powerful integrated graphics in a quad-core package. It's actually a mobile rather than desktop processor and could form the basis of a very desirable thin and light machine.
But the real excitement comes with the arrival of the long, long awaited Bulldozer architecture. Back in early 2008, AMD said 45nm Bulldozer processors would begin sampling in 2009. Two years on and we still don't have a firm launch date. AMD will only confirm it's coming to desktop PCs this year and laptops in 2012.
What we can say for sure is that the original 45nm Bulldozer design is toast. The first Bulldozers you can buy will be built on 32nm silicon. We also know that the first desktop Bulldozer model, known as Zambezi, will have four of what AMD calls "Bulldozer modules" while the mobile version will come in one and two-module trim.
More cores, less cash
It's important at this point to appreciate that the Bulldozer module is a totally new concept in CPU architecture. In simple terms, each module has a pair of integer engines and a shared floating point resource. Really roughly, the idea is to squeeze dual-core performance out of a module that's nearer in size to a single core.
For the record, AMD says that a single Bulldozer module has around 80 per cent of the performance of two conventional CPU cores. In other words, a four-module Bulldozer core should be at least as quick as a six-core processor.
But which six-core processor? Intel's six-core Gulftown chip is much, much more powerful than AMD's existing six-core Thuban chip. Well, it's known that the first retail version of Bulldozer will be a server that is estimated to deliver a 50 per cent performance boost over AMD's existing enterprise-class processors.
To take a very crude example, AMD's fastest six-core chip, the Phenom II X6 1090T currently crunches our x264 HD encode test at 29 frames per second. The similarly six-core Intel Core i7 980X does it at 43 frames per second. Guess what? 43 frames per second just so happens to be precisely 50 per cent faster.
Assuming that's how it works out, it won't put AMD level pegging with Intel for long. Later this year, a a six-core desktop processor based on the new Sandy Bridge architecture arrives will an eight-core chip to follow. But it will put AMD in much more direct competition with Intel. That can only be a good thing for value and prices. It's about time AMD and Intel had a proper bust up and 2011 looks odds on to deliver.