The computer industry is simultaneously quite diverse and quite condensed. There are a grand multitude of companies operating in the same space, but the biggest companies are lightyears ahead of their lesser constituents, and some markets (CPUs) are locked in an unbreakable duopoly.
As a result of this dense core-component space, there is a paradigm shift towards providing a platform of components to end-users as opposed to individual pieces. Intel and AMD go about this in different ways.
Intel produces their own chipsets, boards and CPUs. Most recently with their V8 platform, they seek to equip you with a processor or two, a reliable motherboard, and then send you to another company within the Intel circle of caring for the remainder. Their upcoming SkullTrail platform operates on a similar premise.
AMD, up until recently, was a mere CPU manufacturer. This meant that they had to cozy up to their buddies at NVIDIA for chipsets and graphics cards. Their recent Quad FX platform, which contained Socket F Opterons, was delivered primarily to high-end OEMs which then married the chips to the 680a chipset and SLI NVIDIA boards. Not a particularly lucrative position for AMD.
When we spoke of a dense market, there is no finer example today than the lads at AMD. While a series of delays and poor offerings have tripped up the gents from Sunnyvale, AMD’s acquisition of ATi finally seems to be panning out. Hot on the heels of the Radeon 3800 series, which is winning rave reviews across the wibbly web, comes AMD’s Spider platform which has been many, many years in the making.
The core of the platform comes in the form of the AMD 790FX chipset. Proven to exist in early October of 2006, and rumored to exist long before that, it is somewhat mythic in tale. Originally slated for a much earlier release, it has sat on the backburner for some time, even inciting worries that the chipset may be canned. There usually isn’t much hand-wringing over the cancellation of a chipset, but the 790FX is supposed to be the highest performing chipset of all time. It is cutting-edge, laden with potential, and packed to the brim with new-to-Q4 features such as a new hypertransport spec, PCIe 2.0 and quad GPUs. It’s something of a miracle that this board is making it to life, and it is eagerly awaited by many.
Sitting in the socket is AMD’s long-awaited Phenom (Code name: Agena) processor. The enhanced desktop version of the Barcelona chip which has been running under the Opteron name for a few months now, this may be one of AMD’s last real shots at the enthusiast market. After bungling their road to 65nm, and being very late to the awesomesauce party, AMD really needs a victory with this chip.
Lastly, the Spider platform welcomes AMD’s darling hero of the bunch, the AMD 3800 series GPU. As the fall refresh to the disappointing 2900 series, quite a bit was riding on its success. Luckily for AMD, they seem to have a winner on their hands, delivering a fantastic price/performance board that doesn’t win that ratio just on the merits of its price.
What makes the Spider unique is the mating of chipset, chip and GPU all from one firm. What makes it even more unique is that it will be affordable (Unlike Skulltrail, QuadFX or V8). The 3870 (Code name: RV670), bottoms out at $220 plus shipping, the Phenom processors are expected to be delivered at a pricepoint under $300, and DDR2 SDRAM has dropped to an all-time low. You can bet the motherboards, to round off the package, will be approximately $250. Not a bad price for these components considering the power.
But now we come to economy of scale, the pièce de résistance, of Spider: CrossFireX. For about $100 more than the cost of SLI 8800 Ultra boards, you can have four 3870 boards in quad crossfire on 8x PCIe lanes. Furthermore, rumor has it that the upcoming RV680 will boast two 3870 cores on a single board, bringing the capacity up to eight GPUs in a single computer.
Pardon us when we say hot damn.
Not many enthusiasts have had any faith in AMD over the last year, as numerous stumbles, poor performance and mum’s-the-word trade show presences have shaken our confidence. Perhaps this spells the start of AMD’s return to greatness, but only time will tell. Certainly there are several things afoot with Spider that are promising:
- Economical, large-scale multi-GPU configurations
- A long-awaited, cutting-edge and powerful chipset
- Profitability of selling a platform (Higher than piecemeal parts)
- Economical CPUs
- Finely-tuned and mfgr-encouraged overclocking
The fortuitous, Voltron-esque unity of in-house parts is a recipe for success for the boys in green. The question that remains about the viability of the platform is with the Phenom itself. Plagued by scrutiny, delays (Even recently), and stunningly-poor early reviews make for a looming cloud. We hope (And actually suspect) that the Phenom will improve remarkably with its B3 revision. In the mean time, if AMD can bring the noise in the herculean frame rate war, the Phenom just may be a success by proxy until it can stand on its own two legs. For the sake of competition in the tenuous CPU market, we hope it does just that.