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AMD vs. Intel vs. buying a gaming PC this holiday season

What to make of the new desktop chip announcements this holiday.

You may have seen news today that AMD announced its new Spider platform this morning, consisting of two quad core Phenom CPUs, a new 700-series of motherboard chipsets, and its already announced Radeon HD 3000-series of graphics cards. At 2.2GHz and 2.3GHz for the Phenom 9500 and 9600, respectively, AMD's new chips will need to rely on price, rather than performance, to entice buyers to choose those chips, or systems based on them, over Intel's 2.4GHz Core 2 Quad Q6600. Pricing will shake out as the various retailers get their inventories and can gauge demand, but at least at the start, the $283 Phenom 9600 is more expensive than Intel's Q6600, which we've seen for as low as $260.

AMD's new quad core Phenom chip will need to rely on price to win customers. AMD

And while AMD has said it will announce faster Phenom chips in January 2008, Intel stemmed that news by seeding preview versions of a forthcoming Core 2 Extreme QX9770 chip, a high-end quad core CPU set to release in January. Several hardware sites took the bait and tested the preview hardware, with the overall message being that Intel isn't worried about it losing its performance-leader position.

So where does this leave you, the potential new desktop buyer, this holiday season? First, with only four desktop launch partners--Cyberpower, Falcon Northwest, iBuypower, and Velocity Micro--you should only expect to find these systems in expensive gaming systems. We went over to Velocity Micro's Web site and priced out a Phenom-based Raptor 64 DualX with a Phenom 9600 and two Radeon 3870's for $3,135. That doesn't sound like a bad deal on paper, and we hope to start playing with a review sample soon for a true performance look. Interestingly, no one offers a AMD-based system with three or four Radeons as enabled by CrossFireX, AMD's new multi-GPU standard, announced as a feature of the new 700-series chipset.

But if a $3,000 system of any hardware combination will give you strong price-performance, you don't have a lot of great options if you want to spend $5,000 or $6,000 on a gaming PC right now. The fastest consumer CPU right now is Intel's Core 2 Extreme QX9650. The fastest GPU is Nvidia's GeForce 8800 Ultra, preferably in dual-card SLI mode. The problem is you can't build that system today. Intel's X38 chipset, required for the QX9650, won't support two Nvidia graphics cards in SLI mode. And Nvidia's SLI-capable 680i chipset can't handle the Intel QX9650 chip. With no motherboard chipset currently able to support both Intel's new chip and Nvidia SLI cards, you're forced to compromise on either CPU or GPU power.

AMD's CrossFireX. If only we could find a vendor that sells it. AMD

Numerous reports of a next-generation Nvidia Nforce 700-series chipset (about which Wikipedia has an excellent summary) suggest that this may be the platform circuitry high-end system builders need to get those $5,000 and $6,000 rigs to the appropriate performance levels. And its absence perhaps explains why HP's Blackbird and other high-end PCs don't yet offer Intel's new core 2 QX9650's. If NForce 700 doesn't come out before or shortly after the higher-end Phenom CPUs, and in the meantime AMD's CrossFireX becomes fully-realized (and remains exclusive to AMD chipsets), a possible, if remote, scenario could find Intel and Nvidia leading the individual CPU and GPU markets, but with AMD boasting the fastest overall desktop platform.