It seems ages since I first heard about AMD’s up-and-coming Bulldozer processors; the name has been popping up around the web for almost three years now. Now that we’re finally beginning to approach the new CPU’s expected release date, the buzz surrounding it has escalated to a dull roar. If you’re arriving late to the Bulldozer bandwagon, here’s everything you need to know (that I know) about AMD’s latest and greatest.
Setting the Stage
No one can bad mouth AMD. Though they have a relatively minuscule share of the CPU market when compared to their rival Intel, they are literally the only other company on the planet to even pose a threat. However, the last few years have seen them fall further and further behind Intel’s superior processor architecture, an architecture most certainly born from an R&D budget which must seem bottomless compared to what AMD can bring to bare. AMD’s focus has also been somewhat split since its 5.4 billion dollar merger with GPU giant ATI in 2006.
Over the last year or so AMD has begun creeping back from their fall-behind, introducing a praiseworthy Phenom II architecture with well engineered quad and hex-core chips that, while unable to beat Intel offerings, have been able to compete, especially given their much lower price point. These strides, along with the new technology promised by the new architecture, strongly suggest that AMD may finally be poised to overtake the lead in processing technology.
What makes Bulldozer Special?
I’ve often compared a computer processor to a man working at a desk. The man will work on all the tasks assigned to him, one by one, until they are completed. A standard multi-core processor would consist of several workers at one table who are each able to tackle a single task at a time, allowing the group to get through more tasks at greater speeds than one worker on his own could manage. Historically, Intel’s high-end processors have dominated the game because their “workers” are just plain faster. So fast, in fact, that several of Intel’s high-end processors use a process called Hyper-Threading, basically allowing each core to work on two things at once.
AMD’s bulldozer chips are using a process similar to hyper-threading, except that rather than using faster workers, like Intel, AMD has discovered a way to sit more of them at the same table. A Bulldozer processor (the initial commercial release of which will be code-named Zambezi) will be comprised of several “Bulldozer modules” rather than the traditional guy-at-a-desk logical-core. At a sub-core level, non-Bulldozer processing cores, from AMD and Intel both, are typically comprised of one ALU (Arithmetic Logic Unit) and one FPU (Floating Point Unit), integer and floating point being the two types of math used to complete operations in a computer and which are processed differently. Each Bulldozer module, on the other hand, possesses two APUs along with it’s FPU; thus rather than one worker at the desk, there are now three, two for completing the most common tasks, and one consultant to step-in on floating-point duty, versus the one and one we’ve seen before.
Sticking with the desk-worker visual, a Zambezi, quad-core processor would have one table with four small clusters of three workers each. The groups will be able to work on two processes at a time, just like Intel’s hyper-threading, but will actually have a dedicated set of hands working on each, rather than one set of hands doing both. Thus a quad-core Zambezi CPU would technically have eight cores.
One caveat before moving on, though one Bulldozer module technically houses two processors (the floating-point unity doesn’t count like the integer processors do, since its use is more restricted), the resources normally enjoyed by a single processor, namely the fetch, decoding, and L2 cache, will be shared between them. Because of this, we can’t expect each core to work as quickly or as efficiently as it would on its own, making each module closer to one-and-a-half than two cores.
What are the Specs?
There’s not much available in the way of specifics concerning the Zambezi CPUs. Stats like clock speed and benchmarking results are quite lacking. OpenBenchmarking.org posted results from an engineering sample of a chip featuring a 16-core bulldozer architecture (see the results here and an analysis here), but the results were largely inconclusive.
We do know is that four Zambezi processors are due out in the late Q2 or early Q3 of this year (some sources claim June 20th) and will not be given brand names like earlier AMD lines such as Phenom or Athlon. Instead, the Zambezi’s will simply be given the prefix FX- before their model number. Four CPUs are expected to hit the market initially, sku’d: FX-8130P, FX-8110, FX-6110 and FX-4110.
The higher-end FX-8000 series will feature an 8MB L2 cache, 8 cores (read: 4 bulldozer modules), a DDR3-1866 memory controller, and should be available in an unlocked Black Edition. The FX-6000 will feature 6-cores and the FX-4000 4-cores, each with respectively smaller L2 caches. Experts (source) have guessed at initial clock speeds around 3.5GHz, but no official specifications have been released from AMD. Along with the Bulldozer Zambezi desktop CPUs will come two lines of server level products code-named Valencia (8-core) and Interlagos (16-core).
AMD will launch a new socket type along with the Zambezi CPU, an AM3+ socket, which should retain compatibility with certain current AM3 processors. Additionally, certain AM3 motherboards already on the market will support Bulldozer processors after a BIOS update. (source)
Box art for the processor was also “leaked” in early march, putting a highly-attractive, commercial-friendly face to the FX-/Bulldozer/Zambezi names (source).
What does this mean for AMD/Intel?
Market analysis firm, IDC, estimated that Intel currently holds 80.8% total market share of the processor racket, whereas AMD holds a bare 18.9%, a share that’s been steadily decreasing for several years (source). The Intel Sandy Bridge processors, which hit the market in January of this year, proved a phenomenal product, but were plagued at launch by a vast recall of compatible motherboards due to a flaw in their Cougar Point chipset. This recall has left a gap in the market, users that were planning on upgrading to Sandy Bridge, but who were not able to. If the Bulldozers live up to the hype they’ve generated, AMD will likely fill this void and gain some very significant traction against Intel’s inexorable pushes. If, however, Bulldozer proves to be less than it’s promised, AMD’s new processors will be thoroughly trounced by the Intel Ivy-Bridge performance CPUs due out in Q4 2011 and could mark the beginning of the end for AMD as a consumer processor developer.
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