Let the quad-core competition begin. The arrival of consumer systems based on AMD's quad-core Phenom processor at retail stores will finally bring much-needed four-core rivalry to the high-end PC segment, where, until January, there was only one choice: Intel. Gateway Computer's Phenom-based models had a widely publicized debut at Best Buy this week, making the Irvine, CA-based company the second major U.S. PC vendor after Hewlett-Packard (HP) to adopt the Phenom processor. Earlier in January, Wal-Mart began selling the HP Phenom-based Pavilion M8330F desktop (which, according to Wal-Mart's Web site, is now out of stock).
Gateway's lineup boasts two high-end machines that use the Phenom 9600 (2.3 GHz), as listed on Best Buy, the largest U.S. electronics retailer. This marks a subtle but important shift in retail segmentation. Traditionally, AMD has done very well against Intel-based PCs at the low end but had little or nothing to show--in the last 12 months--at the very high end. The latest Phenom arrivals, however, sit at the top of the gaming and entertainment segments, a coveted Intel quad-core haven. For example, one well-equipped Gateway Phenom model is priced at a whopping $1,439.97, high for an AMD retail system. And, more generally, AMD is succeeding in the numbers game, too. Though the ratio of systems using AMD or Intel CPUs can swing radically quarter to quarter or even month to month, out of the 18 Gateway desktop models and package deals listed by Best Buy, 14 are based on AMD processors and only four on Intel chips as of January 31st. Out of the 21 HP models and package deals listed, 13 use AMD processors and eight have Intel chips. Granted, some of those systems are low-end, low-margin models, but the Phenom processor has given more balance to AMD-based lineups. Best Buy also lists three HP systems using the Phenom processor. And add Acer to the list too. Gateway's parent company now sells Phenom systems here. (Note: The combined entities now comprise the third-largest PC company in the world.)
A few qualifiers are warranted, however. AMD needs to prove that it can ship quad-core processors in volume and be ready to face up to problems if they arise. Shipments of AMD quad-cores have been plagued by manufacturing delays and--according to AMD--a rarely occurring TLB bug. The company has said it won't be shipping the B3 stepping (the version that fixes the bug in silicon) of its quad-core processor until late this quarter or early next quarter. Let's hope the current B2 stepping (which relies on a software fix) of the Phenom is available in quantity and that the bug proves to be a non-issue for PC users (as opposed to server customers who use the Barcelona processor in applications more sensitive to the bug ).