AMD Gets Phenom II into Starting Gate

Damn the economic torpedoes. A newly-revitalized AMD is charging into next year with a series of new desktop processor releases.

The new chips coincide with both the release of the “Shanghai” generation technology and the move to 45 nanometer manufacturing.

AMD (NYSE: AMD) launched the “Shanghai” version of its Quad Core Opteron server processors last month, two months earlier than initially planned and at a higher clock speed, 2.7GHz instead of the 2.5GHz it originally planned.

It was able to do this by making the leap from 65nm to 45nm die size, which allowed for faster clock speeds and lower power consumption. As it did with Barcelona and Phenom, AMD is again taking the server product and bringing it to the desktop. Barcelona launched first, then came Phenom, the desktop version of the product.

In this case, the company is keeping the Phenom name, sort of, and launching the new desktops under the Phenom II brand name. The first batch will come out at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January under the codename “Deneb.”

These 45nm quad-core processors will be called Phenom II X4 and feature 512MB of L2 cache per core plus 6MB of L3 cache, just like the Shanghai design. The chips will fit into AM2+ socket motherboards, AMD’s current socket design.

AMD would confirm that much. However, it declined to comment on reports in DigiTimes, the Taiwan-based tech publication, that there will be more chips come February. The publication said AMD will release six more chips that support the AM3 socket, which can use faster DDR3 memory. AM2+ only supports DDR2, which is slower.

The six chips would be four quad-core and two triple-core Phenoms with 4MB to 6MB of L3 cache.

Then, in April, AMD will launch 45nm Athlon CPUs, which would not include the L3 cache feature.

With the launch of the new chips comes a new platform. “Dragon” will be the successor to “Spider,” which AMD launched last year, as its power/enthusiast platform. “Dragon” will use the new Phenom II chips, the 790 chipset and AMD’s hot-selling 4850 graphics card, which has been winning accolades from hardware testers for its outstanding performance. AMD claims “Dragon” will be anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent faster than “Spider.”

In-Stat Senior Analyst Jim McGregor declined to comment on the Phenom II specifics, citing his own non-disclosure agreements with AMD, but did have plenty to say on the reinvigorated AMD.

“Dirk [Meyer, the new CEO] definitely seems much more focused than he was before,” he told “The good thing is they know where they are focused. They are focused on dominating the mainstream. They’ve got a great platform story and are aimed at being the volume provider. The only problem is they are heading into the worst economic situation we could have.”

Economy aside, AMD’s strategy seems to be to focus on the middle of the bell curve rather than battle with Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) on the high end. “Now can that be effective without being the performance leader? What you have to do is change the game. What AMD has going for it is ATI,” said McGregor.

ATI gives AMD a platform argument of CPU, chipset and graphics that’s integrated and optimized to work together. Intel has it for Centrino but that is mobile only. With Dragon and Puma, AMD can cover both desktop and mobile.

Whether this pays off remains to be seen; recent projections put desktop PC growth at or near zero for 2009.

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