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Saturday, February 11

Geek

A Moment Of Zen

Back in 2011, AMD released Bulldozer, the follow-up to their well-regarded Athlon and Phenom processors which were getting a bit long in the tooth.  Bulldozer changed the traditional design AMD had used, of four or six independent cores, two four modules containing two cores each, with some shared resources like caches and schedulers.

This was not a roaring success, for a number of reasons:
  • AMD could not hit their frequency targets within their power targets.  They've had a 5GHz chip for years, but it's a 220W monster, and they've had low-power chips, but they're slow.
  • Although the shared resources made for smaller cores and good multi-threaded throughput, single-threaded performance was significantly behind Intel's chips, and that matters both for common business applications and for gaming.
  • AMD's plans were to use future process improvements - 20nm planar and then 14nm FinFET - to increase the number of cores and reduce power consumption.  But the 20nm planar process was an industry-wide failure, and AMD's high-end CPUs have been stuck at 32nm for five years.  Intel alone escaped this because they spent the extra money to go to FinFET in their 22nm process.
AMD quickly realised that they had a non-flying turkey on their hands and they needed to do something about it.  In fact, they did two things: A series of updates to Bulldozer that gradually improved performance (though never quite enough), and at the same time, a crash project to build an all-new no-compromise CPU with none of Bulldozer's limitations.

That new processor was called Zen - now branded Ryzen - and it's about to hit the computer market like a brick through a fish tank.

It's eight cores again, but unlike Bulldozer, Zen cores don't share resources.  Instead, each Zen core can run two threads, the same Intel's hyperthreading, so the eight-core chip looks to your operating system like sixteen cores.

It will compete with Intel's $1099 eight-core i7 6900K, and it will cost around $319, and use half the power of the Intel chip.

They'll also be shipping six-core and four-core chips to compete with Intel's Core i5 and i3, and a 32-core monster called Naples for servers, and a mid-range 16-core version called Snowy Owl.

Later this year they'll add a desktop chip with integrated graphics faster than the Playstation 4 (though not as fast as the Playstation Pro).

They have a new socket for these chips, AM4, which supports all versions of their desktop CPUs, from 4 to 8 cores, with or without integrated graphics.

Official launch is expected at GDC 2017, which starts February 27.  Since that's very soon now, it means devices must already be shipping to distributors, and that means that AMD's previously tight control over detailed specs and prices has sprung a thousand leaks in the past week.

On other thing to note: The R7 1700 model  - the $320 8-core version, running at around 3.1GHz with a 3.7GHz turbo clock - is a 65W part, where Intel's 6900K is a 140W part.  What's more, it ships with AMD's excellent Wraith cooler, designed for their existing 125W chips, and its clock speeds are completely unlocked for overclocking.  That should make it a very popular part for enthusiasts.

It also means that AMD could plausibly ship even more cores if they want to.  Even with 8 cores, the chip is estimated to only be around 220mm2; 12 cores would be less than 300mm2 and run at less than 95W at the same clock speeds, and would completely obliterate Intel's mainstream desktop parts in any multi-threaded workload.

Intel has had the desktop CPU market to itself for five years and progress has slowed to a crawl, but it looks like we're about to get five Christmases all at once.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at 11:31 PM | Comments (5) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)
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