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AMD ‘4×4’ dually enthusiast platform detailed

SUNNYVALE, CA — At its Technology Analyst Day today, AMD revealed a number of things about its plans for the next couple of years. Among them, the company’s Sr. VP and CTO Phil Hester announced the creation of a new enthusiast-oriented platform for the Athlon 64 FX dubbed “4×4.” AMD had been hinting at a new move in the enthusiast space in order to counter Intel’s soon-to-be-released Conroe processors, and this is it. 4×4 will involve dual-socket, enthusiast-class motherboards and dual-core Athlon 64 FX processors, which should add up to a tweakable, overclockable, quad-core PC. Those motherboards will also have dual graphics slots and may have as many as four GPUs via schemes like NVIDIA’s quad SLI (and perhaps through something similar from ATI? Hmm.)

Alienware has pledged its support for the concept. In fact, AMD showed a video that it put together with Alienware, and much of the talk in the video was about gaming and immersion.

AMD seems to be banking on game developers taking advantage of more than two cores relatively soon—and on gamers and enthusiasts being excited about the prospect of having four cores cranking away. AMD mentioned the in-development game from CryTek, Crysis, as a probable showpiece for 4×4 systems. CryTek has put a lot of work into taking good advantage of multiple cores via multithreading, and Crysis may help persuade gamers that four CPU cores are good to have.

Another key to it all, in my view, will be the creation of high-quality motherboards with tweakable BIOSes and the like. Dual-socket PCs have typically had limited appeal among enthusiasts because of of frumpy motherboards with straightjacket BIOSes. With better motherboards, 4×4 could have some fairly immediate appeal for some folks.

More exciting down the road are the possibilities created for multi-socket 4×4 systems by AMD’s move to license coherent HyperTransport to partners, another of today’s revelations. The non-coherent version of HyperTransport is already in use around the industry as a chip-to-chip interconnect technology, but coherent HyperTransport is AMD’s own secret sauce, the means by which multiple Opterons in a system communicate. Opening up coherent HyperTransport to third parties could eventually allow for all sorts of coprocessors to plug into the second socket on a 4×4 system and not only talk to the processor in the first socket at very low latency and high speeds, but also participate directly in the CPU’s cache and memory subsystem.

AMD mentioned media and physics processors as candidates for being adapted to coherent HyperTransport. These coprocessors could plug into a CPU socket or a HyperTransport slot, known as an HTX slot, to accelerate games and other apps. The tight coupling of CPU and coprocessor could lead to mind-blowing performance in the right types of application. Of course, hanging a coprocessor off of a coherent HyperTransport link will have to make sense in order to be worth the effort. For instance, GPUs already have their own very high bandwidth local memory subsystems and might do just as well on PCI Express. Sound cards as we now know them, meanwhile, probably couldn’t take sufficient advantage of better communication with the CPU and memory.

Wild things involving coprocessors are still very much in the early planning stages. Real products are at least 18 to 24 months away, if not longer, since the intention to license coherent HyperTransport was just announced today. Also, HTX slots are not part of the requirements for the first 4×4 systems, and those systems are more than likely to have both CPU sockets populated at the outset.

The time frame for introduction of 4×4 systems is a mushy “later this year.” We’ll probably we’ll see the first systems in time for the Christmas buying season. I say “systems” intentionally because, like too many high-end PC products lately, 4×4 hardware will debut first in complete PC systems from the likes of Alienware, Voodoo PC, and Falcon Northwest. Motherboards and processors will eventually be available in the market for DIYers, but not at first. AMD points to the “added complexity” of building 4×4 systems as its reason for giving high-end system builders the first crack at 4×4 hardware. The power and cooling requirements are too great, they say, for DIYers to handle.

For the record, I’ve heard the same excuse from Shuttle for not selling its sweet HTPC designs as barebones systems and from NVIDIA for not selling quad-SLI cards to consumers. I don’t buy it. Alienware and its ilk learned most of their best tricks—water cooling, overclocking, clever component selection, case modding, fancy lights—from DIYers, for whom the added “complexity” of these extreme measures was part of the fun. Enthusiasts have already trodden the path of building dual-socket systems. Our overclocked dually Celeron 300A rigs from back in the day were fairly complex, too, but somehow we managed to succeed—and to spawn a burgeoning boutique PC industry that would now like to plant a heel on our throats. For AMD, I think going with system builders first is a way of throwing some exclusive business to some important partners; it’s also a way of keeping volumes low on parts that make for expensive inventory, for which demand is very tricky to estimate.

But I suppose that is an editorial for another day. At least 4×4 motherboards should become available eventually outside of $5K boutique PCs, if not as soon as we’d like.

If you’ve really been doing the Dew and a four-core rig with quad SLI isn’t extreme enough for you, perhaps this will wax your snowboard: 4×4 systems (and presumably DIY motherboards) will be ready for AMD’s quad-core processors when they arrive. How does eight next-gen AMD cores and four GPUs sound? Probably a lot like an Oreck XL on Metabolife—but it could give AMD a plausible claim to the overall performance crown, even in the face of Kentsfield-based quad-core Extreme Editions from Intel.