The CPU contest lost, AMD seeks gains in graphics

AMD's Phenom may lose to Intel in benchmarks, but can be a compelling value in combination with ATI's 780 graphics.

Brooke Crothers
Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
3 min read

AMD has lost the CPU benchmark war to Intel--for now. But there's another--possibly more important--fight brewing in GPUs. Here, AMD is in the thick of it.

First the bad news. The Phenom X4 processor reviews that followed the Thursday announcement made it clear that AMD will not catch Intel anytime soon. Though some reviews were couched in vaguely optimistic language such as "AMD is back in the game," the bottom-line benchmarks don't lie.

"This $235 CPU (X4 9850) comes in only $10 less than Intel's comparable quad-core chip, but with noticeably slower performance on almost every one of our tests," Rich Brown said in a CNET review. Another review at ARS Technica cited the X4 9850 as "a decent alternative" but "still unable to match or surpass the (Intel) Q6600 at 2.4GHz."

Graphics is another story, however. The Phenom triple-core processor combined with AMD's 780G-based integrated graphics, a new hybrid graphics option, and competitive pricing could give AMD a leg up on Intel in the consumer segment. And it could help get AMD chips into a broader selection of popular PC models as a big spring refresh design cycle approaches for computer makers.

Pat Moorhead, vice president of advanced marketing at AMD, had a lot to say about AMD's 780G hybrid graphics technology and why having a better graphics processing unit (GPU) is sometimes better than merely having a faster central processing unit (CPU). Moorhead's point is that graphics are taking on more of the overall processing load and it's sometime a better value proposition to have a faster graphics chip rather than a faster CPU.

This is where hybrid graphics can play a role. To date, adding a "discrete" (standalone) graphics card would disable the integrated graphics, making it virtually useless. Hybrid graphics allows a graphics add-in card to utilize the integrated graphics chip that is already present in the computer. In essence, providing a low-cost dual-GPU solution. This will match up well with AMD's X3 triple-core processor, Moorhead said.

"That's where the huge value kicks in. Slip in a $50 (HD 3450) graphics card and on a $599 system you can do Call Of Duty 4. Not at HD levels, at lower resolutions, but at a price point you couldn't even dream of before," he said. The 780G by itself is also more powerful than previous integrated graphics chips and is the only integrated solution to do low-cost Blue-ray off-loads, he added.

The downside is that the 780G hybrid graphics is a new, relatively untested technology that applies mostly to games--and has been shown to be inconsistent. (Future driver revisions will probably rectify this, however.) Also, other configurations may offer better price performance. "If 3D gaming is what you're after...you'd be better off with...a less-expensive dual-core chip and a better 3D card," CNET's Brown said.

Technical problems and configuration permutations aside, the gist of what Moorhead is saying echoes Nvidia's rallying cry: graphics are becoming more important than the central processing unit as visualization applications increase.

Jen-Hsun Huang, Nvidia's president and CEO, made this price performance argument during the most recent earnings conference call. In short, users can save money by buying a system with a lower-performance Intel CPU and high-performance GPU--and get better price performance overall than the other way around.

Whether the market is buying into this argument or not is not clear. AMD-ATI--along with Nvidia--has to convince people that having better graphics is, in every day use, actually more necessary than a better CPU with Intel-integrated graphics.

Also, the market is actually moving in the opposite direction in some respects. "Web browsing and e-mail we've long been saying is not very taxing and (any graphics) was good enough. People have figured that out," said Dean McCarron, founder and principal of Mercury Research. This is creating new markets where graphics are less critical. "You look at the Netbook and you're not going to be playing Crysis on that device."