No doubt that new AMD processors based on Bulldozer microarchitecture are one of the most highly anticipated products not only of the year, but at least of the last five. There are several reasons for that as well as for the fact that AMD products have so many fans. I am sure some of you remember the times when AMD processors were better than Intel ones in all aspects. Some users like AMD products for the balanced combination of price and performance that they have to offer. And some may have been carried away by the passion, with which they talked about the advantages of the new microarchitecture they have been working on. All this combined with the years of waiting for the new Bulldozer processor generation produced a pretty logical outcome: you are reading this review with great interest and excitement.
However, the wait was definitely worth it. The success of the Bulldozer processor microarchitecture will determine the situation in the processor market over the next few years. At this time only Intel has sufficient engineering resources and production capacities to roll out new microarchitectures every two-three years. As for AMD, they have to stick to a much more reasonable tempo. It may strike you as somewhat scary, but the microarchitecture currently used in Phenom II and Athlon II processors goes as far back as 2003. There have only been minor “cosmetic” changes made to it since then. Therefore, we do not really expect the launch of Bulldozer processors to speed up the development process for AMD. No doubt that the new Bulldozer will be the basis for all high-performance AMD products for the next few years.
The current version of the company roadmap exploits this microarchitecture up to 2014, but it will most likely continue its existence beyond that point.
AMD’s promise to deliver at least 10-15% performance boost each year is more of a cause for concern rather than optimism. Clock frequency increase will most likely be the primary way of boosting the performance, with microarchitectural improvements being more in the background.
In other words, the success of Bulldozer microarchitecture today will have a life-changing effect on the AMD’s future, will determine how competitive their products will be and in the end what will happen to the processor market in general.
Of course, we can’t deny that Bulldozer is not the only key product for AMD. This microarchitecture is currently positioned for high-performance desktop and server systems. At the same time, AMD has other products for the rest of the market. For example, low-cost energy-efficient processors on Bobcat microarchitecture launched earlier this year or Llano APUs are just as important for the company. And our tests showed that these were pretty successful products that can become an excellent platform for netbooks and nettops as well as power the mainstream integrated platforms.
Nevertheless, Bulldozer’s success or failure will have much greater significance in the long run. First, this microarchitecture targets the market segments with much higher profit margin – servers and high-performance desktops. Therefore, it may have a great impact on AMD’s financial situation. Second, engineers involved into new microarchitecture design and development have actually nothing to do with the success of AMD’s C, E and A series processors. These CPUs (or APUs in AMD’s terms) owe their success in the market to the integrated Radeon HD graphics cores that got into contemporary AMD processors due to a timely acquisition of ATI Technologies. As for Bulldozer, it is more of a qualification test for the engineering team working specifically on the computational cores microarchitecture. And third, Bulldozer will eventually become the basis for the entire AMD CPU lineup except the products designed for energy-efficient platforms. So one day this microarchitecture will also get to the lower-end market segments completely replacing K10 everywhere, even in Llano processors.
Overall, it is hard to overestimate the importance of a successful launch of Bulldozer microarchitecture. It is a milestone product on the psychological as well as practical level, that is why we really hope to see something like a new K7 or K8.
But even before we get to the actual performance tests we can state that there is very little chance of repeating the above mentioned phenomenon. Last time Intel sort of helped AMD to win the leadership by trying to actively promote a not very ideal NetBurst microarchitecture. Back then Intel engineers bet on growing the clock frequencies, which finally stumbled over gigantic leakage currents, while AMD was offering better-balanced microarchitecture aiming at processing more instructions per clock cycle. But when Intel revised their strategy and launched the new Core microarchitecture, which was also trying to process as many instructions per clock as possible, AMD had to step back to a second place where it has been since then.
It is obviously very difficult to outdo contemporary Intel processors in the number of instructions processed per clock cycle. Today’s Sandy Bridge microarchitecture is the result of at least three rounds of optimizations applied to the design, which was efficient right from the start. Therefore, we can’t expect computational cores from AMD to deliver even higher relative efficiency. Especially, since AMD engineers didn’t even have a goal like that.
Bulldozer has a different primary target. According to the developers, processors based on this microarchitecture should run fast due to high clock frequencies and larger number of computational cores compared with the predecessors and competitors. At the same time, they should remain pretty cost-effective, i.e. have a small semiconductor die and relatively low per-core heat dissipation.