The problem with enthusiast platforms

Coupled with Radeon HD 3800 series graphics cards launched late last week, AMD’s new Phenom processors and 790FX chipset fill out the company’s Spider enthusiast platform. As I’m sure you know by now, Spider hasn’t exactly received rave reviews. All is well on the graphics front; the Radeon HD 3800 series offers pretty compelling value considering current card pricing. However, Phenom is largely slower than its Core 2 rivals and hampered by a delay in the 2.4GHz part. The 790FX has issues, as well, held back by a dated south bridge and dodgy motherboard implementations.

Perhaps launching an enthusiast platform wasn’t such a good idea for AMD after all.

Of course, everyone wants to do a platform. Tie products together across multiple categories and, in theory, you get to sell more stuff. Platforms have worked in the PC industry, too. Just look at the success of Intel’s Centrino platform. And, er, um, Intel’s Centrino platform.

So maybe platforms are hard to get just right. Centrino had it easy, too. Targeted at mainstream consumers who have little desire to sift through benchmarks, reviews, and product specifications, all Centrino had to do was provide a tidy bundle of components covering the basics of desired laptop functionality. And it did that very well.

Unlike Centrino, Spider targets enthusiasts. We’re an audience that knows what’s up with the latest hardware and what’s coming around the corner. To capture our attention, you have to do better than simply wrapping a handful of components together in a tidy package. They have to be the best components, because although there are certainly fanboys among us, most of us are quite happy to jump from brand to brand to get the best value. We’re savvy enough to know which components are best in a given product category, too, and we have no qualms about buying parts individually and putting together systems ourselves.

If PC enthusiasts are going to get really excited about a holistic platform, it has to be one that offers the best components in each category that it covers. In this extremely competitive industry, being a leader in one product category is challenging enough. Nailing two is even more difficult, and three, well, that’s more than just a little ambitious.

Realistically, presenting a platform that ties a processor, chipset, and graphics chip together asks that enthusiasts accept at least one, if not two weak links. We’re going to know exactly where those weak links are, too, because specifications and benchmarks will inevitably be leaked on some foreign-language forum weeks before the platform is officially unveiled.

Unless a platform offers the best options across the board, enthusiasts will see it as a compromise. Why would we compromise when we can easily swap a problematic component for something more competitive?

So how does one attract enthusiast to a platform that doesn’t offer the best mix of components on the market? Make the whole as greater than the sum of its parts, either through unique features that tie the platform together or meaningful performance benefits to keeping the platform intact. We’ve yet to see a platform offer significant performance advantages, but platform-specific features have been done before. Just look at how Nvidia ties SLI graphics capabilities to its nForce chipsets. Of course, Nvidia has caught flak for locking competitor chipsets out of SLI, so there are dangers to arbitrarily making certain features platform-specific.

In the absence of unique feature or performance benefits, the best way to get enthusiasts to overlook a platform’s weaknesses is to discount the total package. If you’re going to push a platform as a collection of components, bundle them together and cut the price. Make sure the price cut is more than just a token gesture, too; its magnitude needs to match what we’re losing by not getting the best possible mix of components.

Building a platform for enthusiasts presents a unique challenge because we’re really not the sort of audience that goes out and buys platforms. We mix and match parts, upgrade in stages, and are always looking for the best deal regardless of where our brand loyalties may lie. We’re savvy and skilled enough to select the ideal parts for our needs, giving us little reason to tolerate a platform’s weak link, or links. If manufacturers can’t build an enthusiast platform with no weak links, we’re going to need other incentives, financial or otherwise. And if those aren’t present, well, we’ll keep personalizing our own platforms with the best individual components on the market.

Comments closed
    • RambodasCordas
    • 12 years ago

    “held back by a dated south bridge and dodgy motherboard implementations.”

    Just to know why is outdated?

    Tell me what great new things the very “new” Nvidia and Intel SB have?

    (If you are going to name RAID5, I would like to know the “smart” guy that uses more than 3 drives in his system and that also uses RAID5 with the drives.)

    And the motherboards tell me what motherboard around the ALL existing in the market is as cheap and as good and with so many features like the MSI or Gigabyte 790FX based?

    The only disappoint for me is the low clock the Phenoms got, otherwise:
    – Ati 3850/3870 Perfect cards!
    – Ati 790FX/X/770 based motherboards, Perfect!
    – AMD Phenom X4 if they cost 50$ less than the Intel Q6600, good!

      • Krogoth
      • 12 years ago

      RAID5 doesn’t suck, but you are serious about a RAID5. You would never use a psuado-hardware based solution. 😉

      • Dissonance
      • 12 years ago

      If you’d like more information on the 790FX’s shortcomings, I suggest reading our comprehensive coverage of the chipset:

      §[<https://techreport.com/articles.x/13628<]§

    • snowdog
    • 12 years ago

    From enthusiast to parody. That is what I see with Spider. Quad graphics cards. Really? When I saw this, I thought we have finally reached the “Spinal Tap” edition of motherboards. An homage to silly excess.

    What tiny minority of lunatic fringe enthusiasts will buy into this? As the world heads toward energy efficiency you will be powering a quad graphics card noise box with kilowatt power supplies for a few more FPS. Not to mention the ridiculous expense.

    At what stage of life does someone waste this much on something so out there? As I student I never could afford to waste money on something so pointless. As a working adult it just seems silly even though I could easily afford it. I work in high tech land of the geeks, yet if someone at work bought into this 4 graphics card stuff, I would ask if they had taken leave of their senses.

    Justification for this kind of spend is getting harder and harder. This seems less about filling any real performance need than merely bragging about having 4 graphics cards. Though who you would brag to, I can’t imagine.

    The real platform that AMD has a chance with is building a very good performing integrated platform, integrating CPU with graphics as powerful as R670 without a graphics card. That is the future. This 4 graphics card stuff, is a laugher and little more.

    Here is the perfect case to go with the quad cards:
    §[<http://www.uberreview.com/2007/11/66-fan-casemod-looks-ugly-dangerous.htm<]§

      • RambodasCordas
      • 12 years ago

      Well just because the motherboards have 4 PCIe 2.0 16X slots doesn’t means you have too or are forced to use four graphics cards. Who knows what use they may have in the future?

      It was silly in the past to see 1 AGP + 6 PCI slots that in my case never got more than 1AGP+1PCI. If that “silly” thing is silly and nobody done nothing to change it why not more “silly” 16x slots?

      At least ATI/AMD is trying different things and isn’t doing the same stuff we keep seeing from the same guys like Intel.
      With Intel is so easy to see what they are doing and are going to do, I even wonder if the driving force of all this industry is really Intel.

    • ShadowEyez
    • 12 years ago

    Good write up – though probably not a true “hardcore” enthusiast (I have a real job and other responsibilities) in that I do not always have the latest stuff, I still build all my systems and keep them trimmed of junkware and updated. And you’re right, I also go for the best deals in a specific price/performance range, so if a platform had all the main components (motherboard, CPU, GPU, RAM) that were the best performers and had a combined price of less then the individual parts (with the same or similar specs) otherwise chosen for a given upgrade, I would go with the platform. But in the short history of PC’s that has never yet been the case. Though maybe this will be a first?

    • Jethro
    • 12 years ago

    AMD actually finally /[

      • indeego
      • 12 years ago

      Cost.
      It’s that simple. If the cost had been 30% cheaper, then we could cut them some slack, but they just aren’t priced competitivelyg{<.<}g

      • rxc6
      • 12 years ago

      Well, the thing is that AMD did launch a buggy platform. The video card is ok, but the other two parts aren’t that great. A cheap Phenom can be attractive, but a buggy motherboard is a hard pill to swallow.

    • PRIME1
    • 12 years ago

    I think they need to focus all of their attention on the mid-range and low end.

    Right now their CPU and Graphics are in 2nd place and their chipsets are in third.

    • Voldenuit
    • 12 years ago

    How ’bout this?

    All Phenom chips could automatically unlock their multipliers when used with a 790FX mobo. If for some reason you don’t want to get a 790FX, then you need to buy a Black Edition CPU.

    Or a Core 2 Quad. :p

      • Pax-UX
      • 12 years ago

      That’s what I’m talk’n about Willis

    • bogbox
    • 12 years ago

    What about the Quad FX ? whend they gone launch it?
    I think that 790FX combine whit the Phenom FX and a radeon X2 will probabilly be very competitive. 2*4cores is something and 4 radeon *2GPU will burn some power :))

    • dragmor
    • 12 years ago

    Crossfire X has some good possibilities.
    1) The ability to turn cards off when not in use (dynamically change the power used by the slot). Lower idle consumption for crossfire rigs.
    2) Onboard graphics giving a boost to the low end cards.
    3) Plug the monitor into the on board graphics and have the system use the discrete card during games and turn it off when doing normal PC things.

      • FubbHead
      • 12 years ago

      That would actually be a more important feature to me, than the msot uber performence. That would be *if* I even were considering such a setup, of course. 🙂

    • indeego
    • 12 years ago

    Should the next article in the series should be: The problem with enthusiast websitesg{

    • kvndoom
    • 12 years ago

    Beautiful pic. Gawd, I love spiders…

    I haven’t upgraded in almost 2 years, and that’s atypical of me over the last decade or so. But there just hasn’t been any need to. I just haven’t encountered any “must-have” game that I feel the need to drop hundreds of dollars into my system for the sake of playing.

    • alex666
    • 12 years ago

    Here’s a thought.: Centrino notwithstanding, Intel has been selling enthusiast cpus and chipsets for a long time now, and done quite well in the enthusiast market, especially of late. That’s two of the three categories referred to in this opinion piece. Nvidia has been doing two of the three categories as well for quite a while (chipset and gpu). I’m not sure you can call what Intel and Nvidia have been doing “platforms”, but I suppose you could. So really, all AMD is doing is adding the 3rd piece, the gpu. That doesn’t seem like that big of a stretch. I’m not saying they’re doing it successfully, but it’s not all that much beyond what Intel and Nvidia have been doing. In short, I’m not sure of the point of the article.

    • Gerbil Jedidiah
    • 12 years ago

    I’m pretty depressed myself at the current state of AMD’s CPU/Mobo offerings. I hope things get resolved in the next month before I decide to blow some money on a Q6600, P35 pro, AMD 3870 crossfire combo.

    Once this Phenom issue gets resolved though and the cores can be clocked at differing speeds, well I had a thought.

    What if, for us gamer types, we could take a quad core Phenom and ramp up only two cores? Most games use two cores, so we get the speed we need for games without melting the CPU. In this scenario we might get two cores to 3.2GHZ, just to use a number, when the 4 cores maxxed together might top out at 2.9GHZ due to heat (again, just a number)

    Then, if we need the 4 cores running for other apps, we can tweak the cores to respond to that need.

    • donkeycrock
    • 12 years ago

    now that i have been building enthusiast computers for some time now this is what i look for when getting new parts…

    1. price per dollar, but also include caps on prices because computer prices fall so fast, and there is going to be a better cheaper part in a year. so i have refined my price limits to be.
    CPU less than $200
    Video card around $300
    HDD around $100
    Ram around $100
    mobo lass than $150

    i have previously bought all these parts for higher prices and regret it.
    i bought the AMD 600 mhz for $250. i bought two 7900 gts for 300 each, i bought 1 gig dual channel of ddr ram for $180. I also boughta 2900xt for 300 bucks a couple months back, and now i’m really regretting that, not only is it not so great, it is way way to noise. so stupid, learn from my mistakes, anything over these prices are unnecessary over a short term, especially since you probably upgrade once a year.

    note: i would probably not ever do a multi video card again, buy the time one spends all that money on 2 video cards, in one year next gen cards are better, cheaper, with less bugs, heat and noise. typically

    As for the phenom and the 2900xt, i think they rushed it out the door with know problems, but they had to in order to make some cash flow. i bet that the 3870 was the planned release of this generation, but just couldn’t do it in a timely fashion, and the phenom they just needed to release to keep investors happy with progress. but i have a feeling that with in six months AMD will look good to the enthusiast again, with the fixed phenom, mobo and maybe a new video card.

    i am very excited about the next 6 months, and look forward to getting a sub $200 dual core penryl, or a quad core phenom B3.

    my dream mobo
    micro atx mobo 1 PCI-Express x16, good sound card on board, 1 gig nic, 4 to 6 usb ports, no firewire, no legacy crap, no onboard video, 2 ram slots, and a good chipset that doesn’t have extra crap i dont need. and i think that would make it smaller and require less power/heat/more efficient. i dont even want raid. no ide connectors. all sata. looking at this, it is basically a upgradeable gaming console. fine with me, make it cheap and they will come

      • PrincipalSkinner
      • 12 years ago

      It seems that we want the same thing. I also want a mobo that has everything I need and nothing I don’t need. No multi GPU capabilities, no Firewire and so on.
      The AMD 790 might just look good in couple of months as may the entire platform. The problem is the waiting. When they get it right who know what the competition will have by then. By then again, AM2+ seems to have a nice upgrade future. Buy a cheap Athlon now, buy a cheap Phenom later and buy a cheap AM3 processor much later and you have 2 or so years of upgradeability. Not bad.

      • Geatian
      • 12 years ago

      Price per dollar, eh? That’s a new, rather unorthodox metric. I like it. 🙂

    • ludi
    • 12 years ago

    Step into my parlour, said the Spider to the enthusiast…

    • Lord.Blue
    • 12 years ago

    I would be all over the Spider platform if they offered a 3Ghz Phenom 9XXX series…what are they going to call the 2.7, 2.8, 2.9 and 3.0 Ghz Phenoms anyway?

    • Jigar
    • 12 years ago

    Nice pic on the front page 😉

      • ssidbroadcast
      • 12 years ago

      Yeah reminds me of the Scary Spider Situation thread.

        • Sargent Duck
        • 12 years ago

        I hate spiders…

        Give me the willies. And this picture is no exception.

    • AMDisDEC
    • 12 years ago

    These are my thoughts exactly.
    Catering to this market is good for small companies like Voodoo, or Alien, but AMD needs real pervasive platforms. Not one that targets a small and frickle niche market.

    While AMD is wasting time here, Intel is defining ATCA for the Telecom industry. A $50B forecast over the next 5 years. I wonder what the forecast is for enthusiast platforms? $2, 5, $10M/annual? Does anyone even know?

    • MrJP
    • 12 years ago

    Great stuff, Geoff.

    I suppose AMD would argue that Crossfire X is their unique selling point, though I think I heard somewhere that this will come across to Intel chipsets in time. Even if it does remain unique to Spider, you can’t get away from the reality that very few people (even amongst enthusiasts) see the need for two graphics cards (and almost all of those are SLI rather than Crossfire), so who’s going to decide that three or four is a good idea?

    I’ve actually found the flaky debut of 790FX much more depressing than the anti-climax of Phenom. I don’t think anyone was really expecting Phenom to surpass Core 2, and I think the tone of Damage’s review was spot on: it’s certainly no winner yet, but it’s probably good enough to keep AMD in the game if they can get on top of yields and fix the bugs.

    But it seems almost unbelievable that they’ve brought a chipset to market that generally underperforms relative to the 2-year-old Nvidia competition (and probably relative to its predecessor as well), while featuring on what so far seem to be a flawed series of motherboards. I suppose they just ran out of time, but I certainly wouldn’t contemplate buying into this platform as things stand, almost regardless of financial incentive. And that’s actually the final kicker: both Phenom and the motherboards seem to be rather optimistically priced relative to the competition.

    I may well go with a Radeon 3870 for the new build I’m planning for the New Year, but it looks like my CPU and chipset money is going to Intel.

    • Jigar
    • 12 years ago

    Excellent write up there… Mirror most of the tech folks thinking..

    • VILLAIN_xx
    • 12 years ago

    Amen . . . . . . . . .

    • provoko
    • 12 years ago

    Yea, why not a discount. Like for AMD’s Spider platform, they could give a $100 rebate when you buy one of each part.

      • willyolio
      • 12 years ago

      i’d build a spider platform if there was a decent discount. the parts themselves aren’t bad per se, just not the best available.

    • JJCDAD
    • 12 years ago

    Is this like “An Open Letter To AMD”?

    You speak the truth man. Keep it up.

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