We found the first batch of Phenom chips, the 9500 and the 9600, underpowered compared with Intel's quad-core lineup, but as we hoped would happen, AMD dropped the Phenom prices low enough to make the Phenom a solid price-performance option. You can now find Phenom chips in PCs that cost less than $700. A comparable system with an Intel quad-core chip will cost between $800 and $1,000. Newer Phenom X4 9850 and X4 9750 chips just released still can't catch up to Intel's older Core 2 Quad Q6600 chip, but if their prices fall like those of the other Phenoms, you might find AMD quad-core chips in a wide range of affordable desktops very soon.
News also hit in February of this year that AMD has shipped its long-rumored triple-core Phenom X3 processors to system builders, although Hewlett-Packard and Dell are selling them only in their business desktops. A few consumer-oriented triple-core PCs have been reported at Best Buy, but they aren't on shelves in any significant volume.
For Intel's part, the end of 2007 saw the debut of Intel's 45-nanometer chip technology in the form of the quad-core Core 2 Extreme QX9650, which set records on our benchmarks. Fast-forward to January 2008 and the same underlying chip design has trickled down to the mainstream dual-core Core 2 Duo 8000 series and the quad-core Core 2 Quad E9000 CPUs. Intel has not been as aggressive as AMD in getting its new quad-core chips in mainstream PCs, we suspect because it's happy to let its Core 2 Duo chips continue to do the heavy lifting. Intel has also bolstered its high end with the Core 2 Extreme QX9770 and QX9775, which are faster versions of the QX9650, and also designed to work with a 1,600MHz front side bus (compared with the QX9650's 1,333MHz bus design).
Despite all of those chip introductions, Intel has been relatively quiet on the motherboard side of things, at least on the lower end. All of the new 45-nanometer CPUs have the same socket design that Intel has used for the past few years, and thus, Intel's current P30 and G30 series chipsets can handle the Core 2 Duo E8000 and Core 2 Quad Q9000 chips with no trouble.
On the high end, Intel has made some interesting moves. The X38 and X48 chipsets work with the new Extreme chips, with both supporting DDR3 memory, ATI's CrossFire dual graphics card technology, and--in the case of the X48--faster 1,600MHz bus. Intel also debuted the D5400XS motherboard, aka Skulltrail. This crossover from Intel's server chipsets supports two quad-core CPUs, as well as both CrossFire and Nvidia's SLI technology. While Intel pitched the Skulltrail as a platform for both playing and designing games, such an expensive rig would offer little benefit to PC gamers, because very few games can even take advantage of four CPU cores right now, let alone eight.
In addition to better power management, the chip-to-chip connections in Puma will meet the HyperTransport 3.0 standard, which could result in higher clock speeds and theoretically more efficient use of memory. Other technology updates on the platform include support for the final 802.11n specification and for DirectX 10, as well as the company's Universal Video Decoder technology, which provides dedicated video processing on the chipset.
Intel started off 2008 by introducing mobile versions of Penryn, its 45nm chip. Essentially a shrink of Core 2 Duo chips, Penryn includes a few enhancements; one such upgrade, SSE 4.0 instructions, will (according to Intel) improve the performance of multimedia applications. Another improvement will stem from Intel's switch to new materials for transistors, which should result in lower power consumption. Early 2008 also saw the introduction of the small-form-factor Core 2 Duo CPUs that made possible the latest wave of ultrathin ultraportables, such as the MacBook Air and the Lenovo ThinkPad X300.
Following the company's tick-tock pattern of releasing a new chip, then a new platform, Intel has also lined up a refresh of its Centrino platform, until recently code-named Montevina but now officially called Centrino 2. Key elements of the new platform will be Penryn processors--some with a 1,066MHz front-side bus--and such graphics improvements as broader DirectX 10 and Blu-ray support. (Word on the street has it that the new integrated graphics processor will be called X4500 HD.) Centrino 2 will definitely include an optional integrated WiMax radio, and the rumor mill suggests that Intel will boost the amount of available Turbo Memory to 2GB, the better to take advantage of Windows Vista.
In the first half of this year Intel will also release a whole new processor family, dubbed Atom. The new processors are designed for mobile Internet devices and portable computers with 7- to 10-inch screens ("Netbooks," in Intel's parlance). Because the focus is on portability, Atom processors are smaller and reportedly more energy-efficient than the company's mainstream mobile CPUs. Performance-wise, the new chips seem best for lightweight mobile apps; the earliest testers are reporting that Atom's performance trails that of Celeron.