AMD's Spider weaves an impressive web

ATI acquisition is bearing fruit, says Tom Yager

When AMD acquired ATI, the very first thought in my head was that it would stage a triumphant return to the total platform — CPU plus chipset — business. On November 19, it finally happened. AMD paired its new Phenom 64-bit, quad-core, single-socket CPUs with AMD/ATI jointly designed 7-series chip sets to create the Spider platform. That name makes for fetching marketing artwork, but it's also descriptive: Spider is agile on any terrain, quick to react, and yet still as a statue when there's no work to be done. And thanks to ATI, it has exceptional vision.

The Phenom CPU is not, as prior AMD top-end client processors have been, a lite edition of AMD's latest server CPU. When I got my first briefing on Phenom this spring, I voiced my wish that some of the new Phenom CPU's advanced power management and performance-scaling features had made it into Barcelona. It would have handily put to rest this aggravating myth that Xeon and Barcelona are equals.

For starters, Phenom is AMD's first 65-nanometer part. Instead of using the extra die space and the smaller transistors to go ape on cache and clock speed as Intel is constantly compelled to do, Phenom takes a more conservative approach. Like Barcelona, Phenom uses a three-level cache architecture: Each core has its own 128KB Level 1 cache and 512KB Level 2 cache, and four cores share a 2MB Level 3 cache. AMD made empty space on the die with the process shrink from 90 nanometers, but it didn't use that space for cache. So how will AMD use it?

Spider is ostensibly aimed at enthusiasts and 3-D gamers looking for the ultimate cinematic experience. Fully built out, Spider is Phenom (the quad-core AMD 9000-series CPUs) plus AMD's 7-series chip sets and ATI's next-generation discrete graphics cards. As I see it, a fast CPU without a discrete GPU (graphics processing unit) is a very sad thing. The HyperTransport 3.0 bus is twice as fast as the HT bus in all existing AMD client and server machines. HT 3.0's scalability is one of many aspects of Phenom's brilliant power equation that includes independent power control of each core. Spider accommodates DDR2 RAM running at up to 1,066MHz, with a road map for DDR3. (DDR2 consumes about half the power of Intel's FB-DIMM).

Spider gives the truly power-hungry something they'll never see from Intel: manual power and performance management. For performance fiends, that means overclocking. Contrary to purpose, I use these utilities to underclock, to crank power down as low as it can go without putting the machine completely to sleep. Spider's (over)clocking utility integrates GPU performance control into the same tool; AMD's marriage to ATI is clearly working out nicely. For the less savvy who want to squeeze the absolute safe maximum performance out of their unique total system configuration, the tuning utility has an automatic mode. Start it, let the system sit for a few hours, and you will come back to a set-up that will run at the absolute maximum safe speed. Your cooling fans will roar, but your machine will smoke, and only figuratively.

When AMD uses such catchwords as "enthusiast" and "gamer", I also see blindingly fast, affordable, and power-efficient one-socket workstations that are zero-latency responsive for interactive tasks, and which have two definitions for the term "idle": Either it goes into an ultra-low-power sleep, or it kicks into overdrive and grinds like a madman. We'll see Phenom in notebooks. I see it in blades and in servers that occupy a quarter of a rack unit. I don't have to look to Phenom's future to get excited about it. Spider already has me in its clutches.

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