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AMD's next top model
I was playing catch with my six-year-old the other day, and she mentioned something she'd heard about in preschool. "Daddy, why can't AMD get Phenom clock speeds higher?" That's when I knew AMD's struggles were not exactly out of public view. We've expected the Phenom to launch at many clock speeds over the past six months or so, each one a little lower than the last. Quite recently, AMD told us it planned to introduce a 2.4GHz version at a launch, but alas, that didn't come to pass. As I told my daughter, "Sweetie, the latest Phenom chip revision has a TLB problem that causes instability at higher clock speeds." We don't have precise details on the nature of the problem, but AMD told us that fixing it will require a new spin of the chip, which is why higher speed Phenom variants have been delayed.

As a result, AMD is introducing a pair of Phenom models today, with promises of more later. The Phenom 9500 is the first model; it will be clocked at 2.2GHz, and the Phenom 9600 will run at 2.3GHz. Both chips have a 95W TDP rating. AMD recently introduced its "ACP" power rating system, but the company has yet to assign ACP ratings to its Phenom models. Expect those numbers, when they come, to be lower than the TDP numbers.

We know from experience with the quad-core Opterons that a Phenom at 2.3GHz isn't going to recapture the overall performance crown from Intel. As we wrote in that review, AMD needs to reach something close to clock speed parity in order to catch Intel, and the top Core 2 processors run at 3GHz. You can do the math on that one. In order to make the Phenom attractive, then, AMD has priced it to move. The 9500 will list for $251 and the 9600 for $281—right in the territory of our current favorite Intel CPU value, the Core 2 Quad Q6600. AMD even plans to sweeten the pot by offering a Phenom variant akin to the recent Athlon 64 X2 5000+ "Black Edition." This 2.3GHz Phenom will have an unlocked upper multiplier for easy overclocking, and it should be priced similarly to the locked versions of the same. This strategy isn't a substitute for achieving outright performance leadership, but it's certainly a nice way to capture the attention—and perhaps the affections—of PC enthusiasts.

Down the road, AMD does plan to introduce higher-clocked variants of the Phenom, starting with the 9700 at 2.4GHz. This model won't arrive until some time in the first quarter of next year, but when it does, it will follow the same value-oriented pricing scheme as current products, with a price "below $300." Later in Q1 2008, the Phenom 9900 should debut at 2.6GHz, with a price tag "under $350." These chips should be newer revisions of Phenom silicon with the TLB bug corrected. Of course, plans like these may sound good, but AMD will have to execute on them, and that's the tricky part. Also, pricing on the 9700 and 9900 models may look like quite a bit less of a bargain once Intel ships the rest of its 45nm product lineup, which should happen early next year, as well.

Here's a look at the Phenom engineering sample we received for testing. Unfortunately, our access to Phenom chips prior to the products' introduction was limited by an obviously nervous AMD. We only received this CPU late last week, and it's not entirely representative of consumer products, despite the fact that AMD expects to have processors selling in a few days, in time for Black Friday shopping. Our chip is clocked at 2.6GHz, like the proposed Phenom 9900 model expected next year. We've tested it at that speed, but we've also clocked it down to 2.3GHz a la the Phenom 9600 for another round of tests.

I should mention that both shipping Phenom models and our 2.6GHz engineering sample come with a 2GHz north bridge clock. We'll have a look at why that clock is an important one in our benchmark results shortly.

Our Phenom sample came to us with another engineering sample, an early rev of the Asus M3A32-MVP Deluxe motherboard based on the 790FX chipset. The Phenom and 790FX make up two of the three elements of AMD's so-called "Spider" platform. Unfortunately, the platformization pitch didn't translate into a stable system. I don't think we've ever experienced so much trouble with a major hardware product so close to its launch as we did with the Phenom/790FX combo. The system simply just wasn't stable and had to be coaxed through our test suite with a combination of BIOS tweaking, trial-and-error retries, and prayer. We were able to complete our testing, but we're very much hoping what we experienced isn't representative of the products that will be shipping to consumers this week. If it is, AMD and its partners are in for a deluge of support requests from frustrated customers.

Intel's November surprise
You may watch the 2007 New England Patriots and think that rubbing it in is bad sportsmanship. Intel watches them and thinks, "Hey, cool. They hung 56 on Buffalo. Respect!" That, I suppose, is the spirit in which Intel shipped out its little greeting committee for the Phenom, the chip pictured below.

The Core 2 Extreme QX9770

The Core 2 Extreme QX9770 is based on the same 45nm Yorkfield design as the QX9650, but it runs at 3.2GHz on a 1600MHz front-side bus. Like the 2.6GHz Phenom, this chip isn't scheduled to arrive until next year, but we can give you an early preview now. Of course, unlike the Phenom 9900, this processor won't cost under $350. Intel says to expect pricing above today's Extreme processors, which are already topping $1100. Also, this part has a TDP rating of 136W, putting it beyond the traditional power envelopes we've come to expect from Intel.

Gigabyte's X38-DQ6 handled the 1600MHz front-side bus easily

The QX9770 presents another problem, in that today's motherboards and chipsets aren't rated for 1600MHz FSB operation, at least officially. That FSB speed will get its official blessing with the introduction of the upcoming Intel X48 chipset. Fortunately, with the latest BIOS, we were able to achieve a stable configuration using a Gigabyte X38-DQ6 motherboard. The board we had on hand was the DDR2 version, so it wasn't able to use DDR3 memory like our other Core 2 test platform, but that shouldn't have a major impact on performance.

Clearly, the QX9770 won't be direct competition for the Phenom 9600 or even the 9900. Instead, it seems to be an exclamation point on Intel's performance leadership. For our purposes today, we'll be focusing the bulk of our commentary and analysis on the Phenom 9600 and the Core 2 Quad Q6600, since they are much more direct competitors. The QX9770 results are there for you to ogle, though, if you wish.