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AMD once edged past Intel to attain the performance crown. Now, the chip maker faces an uphill challenge.

You might remember that years ago AMD held the performance crown with their Athlon 64 processors. Intel struggled to catch up, adding 64-bit capability to their processors. The Netburst microarchitecture (Pentium 4) proved to be unable to catch up with AMD's innovation no matter how many gigahertz Intel put into their high-end processors; therefore, Intel turned to their older P6 microarchitecture (Pentium 3) to create the Core microarchitecture, which has since allowed Intel to reclaim its performance crown.

Even with the performance crown, AMD faced the fact that Intel was a marketing giant. While many enthusiasts, gamers, and other demanding users turned to AMD, Intel still held the mainstream market due to a number of factors. Most manufacturers sold mostly Intel computers. Some did not sell AMD computers at all. The public perception of Intel was also a large factor; many recognized Intel as the processor manufacturer, and looked to buy an Intel computer. I would like to note that one time, I talked to a user that was unsure of whether or not all of their software would be compatible with an AMD processor because they had always bought Intel.

Now that Intel has reclaimed the performance crown, AMD has had to compete in other ways. One way they have successfully done this is by offering exceptional value through lower prices. Of course, they have not been sitting around; AMD has forged ahead with their Phenom and, more recently, Phenom II processors. At the same time, Intel has come out with their Nehalem microarchitecture. Based on this microarchitecture are Intel's new 45nm Xeon server processors as well as the Core i7 and Core i7 Extreme processors for the high-end desktop market as well as the first of Intel's Core i5 processors, which will aimed more at mainstream computing. Eventually Intel will switch over to a 32nm process. he high-end processor for servers and desktops will then be Core i9, a six-core processor. At the lower end will be the Core i3 and a Pentium-branded processor.

Image copyright Imperator3733. See the image summary on Wikipedia for more information.

So, the question becomes this: how will AMD continue to compete? It is fairly clear that Intel is also trying to get into the lower-end market with the Core i3 and their Pentium branded processors. If Intel is able to keep prices low enough and performance good enough on these lower-end chips, will AMD be able to compete? This is a complicated question, and there is no easy answer.

AMD's Phenom II processors are based on 45nm technology, and have improved performance from the original Phenoms. Benchmarks, however, show that high-end Phenom IIs still lag behind Intel's high-end Core i7 chips. While the Phenom IIs might cost less, those who demand performance at the high-end are bound to turn to Intel. AMD does, however, have quite a bit of potential at the mid-range to lower end. The Athlon II X2 and Phenom II X2 chips appear to be very good for the price according to benchmarks.

The other big question is this: where does AMD go next? It would appear that the next step is still AMD Fusion; these processors would function as both a CPU and GPU, eliminating the need for a separate graphics card. Intel will be exploring similar technology with some of their upcoming processors with the codenames "Clarkdale" and "Arrandale." However, given Intel's history with GPUs and the fact that these are intended to be mainstream-market processors, these processors won't be ideal for gaming or more intense graphics. One interesting thought is that, just as in the current Macbook Pro laptops with graphics that can be switched from dedicated to integrated to save power, perhaps computers with this technology could also an include a dedicated graphics card and be able to switch back and forth depending on performance needs or lack thereof at a given moment.

Since AMD now has ATI's resources, their Fusion processors could possibly deliver better graphics than Intel's will, but at this point this is just pure conjecture. According to Wikipedia's article on AMD Fusion, these processors may skip the 32nm process and instead be based on a 22nm process. This could give AMD a chance to get ahead once again, although there is no guarantee that AMD's processors will have superior performance simply because of the smaller process. Only the future will tell the fate of the two major x86 processor manufacturers, both of which face the challenges of the economic recession.


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