It was not until AMD decided to do something different and launched the Athlon line of CPUs that they were able to start to compete head to head with Intel. This brilliant processor was based off of the DEC Alpha core design and bus. There was a slight flaw in the design though. You see the Alpha CPU was already exceptionally efficient due to their RISC design. They were much better at managing memory and also CPU cache. This is why the first Athlons had cache that was not on the CPU die but attached to the PCB that the CPU was mounted to. Unfortunately this did tend to slow things down so AMD eventually did integrate the cache into their CPUs designs which helped them increase speeds and also improve performance.
Later AMD moved to integrate the memory controller in an effort to increase performance and also implemented their x86-64 bit instructions with the launch of the Opteron CPU and Athlon 64 CPUs. It was certainly a great time to work at AMD and be an AMD fan. They had the best desktop and server CPUs hands down. Sadly it seems that AMD took a break shortly after launching their X2 line and for whatever reason did not seem to be able to improve on the design of the CPUs much. The AM2 line brought in DDR2, but due to latency issues with the new memory standard and AMD’s caching and internal memory controller the new CPU was not able to bring much to the table.
This downward trend marked the beginning of a long slide for AMD as Intel got their heads out and put together a succession of CPUs that simply out performed anything that AMD could bring to market. AMD tried to move back to the days of beating Intel on price (or litigation) but even that started to fail as Intel was able to reduce price thanks to larger wafers and smaller process.
Now AMD is something of a shadow of the company that brought us the Athlon and Opteron. CEO Rory Reed does want to change things, but it seems like he does not know what direction to take the company. Reed knows they cannot dive directly into mobile; they simply do not have the R&D budget for it. He has worked to build an R&D group with a few ARM manufacturers which will give them a good start into that area.
AMD has also managed to bring back a very important person in the desktop and mobile CPU world; Jim Keller. This is the same guy that helped to author the x86-64 instruction set and the hyper transport protocol so you know he gets the desktop and server CPU world. For the last few years working a director for Apple’s platform architecture group and helped to develop the A4, A5 and A5X. Keller will be working for another Apple working Mark Papermaster who was Apple’s SVP of Devices Hardware Engineering.
The move is designed to help AMD solve their power/efficiency problems and let them compete better against Intel. Already AMD has the best integrated graphics solution in the form of Trinity, but their CPUs are still underpowered when compared to Intel. Also AMD’s much smaller presence in the thin and light space hurts them when compared to Intel Ultrabooks with nVidia GPUs inside. So brining back one of the team that helped them create the Opteron and Athlon64 is a very good thing for AMD.
We hope to see some good things from AMD, but unfortunately we do not see them being able to benefit from Keller’s knowledge for at least a year. This means that AMD could still face some rough times ahead as both ARM and Intel are pushing more aggressively into the low-power/high performance space.
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