Hands-on with AMD’s Spider and Phenom 9700

AMD SpiderThis week, Christmas came early in a big black box code-named the “Spider“. It has a (engineering sample) quad-core Phenom 9700 2.4GHz processor, AMD 790FX chipset and an 256MB ATI Radeon HD 3850 graphics card.

Hector Ruiz could very well be Santa and his PR people, elves.

Needless to say it’s been a pretty tough year for Advanced Micro Devices. Starting from August, chief of sales and marketing officer Henri Richards announced to leave the company. Then came the fourth consecutive quarter net loss of nearly $400 million, total net loss of over $2 billion. More recently, AMD became less valued then what it paid for ATI last year. To the company and its many loyalists, all bets were on Phenom and the next-generation ATI Radeon graphics card.

Shortly after the announcement of Spider and Pheom, benchmarks started trickling out with not-so-good news. At least early-production Phenom review samples suffered problems with stability in what is now known as the TLB errata. If that wasn’t enough, the only workaround resulted in dramatic performance loses. As an outsider at the time, it seemed like quite the tragedy.

Having exhaustively used Spider for two day now, I see no reason why AMD will “fall”, in fact I believe AMD’s on the right path to reclaiming its former Athlon64 glory. It’s not there yet, with Intel’s Core 2 Extreme and Nvidia’s Geforce 8800-series delivering marginally better performance, but there’s room for improvement down the road..

Platform-wise, Spider is actually a great idea. Sure, it’s purely marketing and branding but it’s worked wonders for Intel.

The benchmark is of course, Centrino, Intel’s platform for mobile computing. Soon enough, people were buying exclusively Centrino laptops because there was a standard of quality and compatibility that came with the combination of Intel processors, chipsets and wireless cards. To the average consumer, that meant a better laptop experience without all the cryptic model numbers. Unfortunately Intel could not repeat the magic with Viiv.

AMD SpiderFor AMD, Spider is a high-performance computing platform which describes the combination of a Phenom 9xxx processor, ATI Radeon 38xx GPU and the AMD 7-series chipset. To average Joe, Spider means the computer will deliver enough horsepower for all the latest blockbuster games and entertainment.

If Joe (and remember Joe doesn’t read 500 RSS feeds) walks into a store and sees one computer with “Spider”, and another with “Intel QX6600, NVIDIA Geforce 8800GT, NVIDIA Nforce 690i”, you can see where AMD has the upper hand.

Performance-wise, Spider is nothing short of a top-tier experience. Again, it’s not number one, but it’s pretty damn close.

AMD Spider WinSAT 5.9 result

I trust Windows System Assessment Tool (WinSAT) to be a pretty good judge of real-world performance and in this case it’s peaked at 5.9, the artificial limit imposed by Microsoft currently.

Currently my system is far from the default factory state, so I won’t post any synthetic benchmark results since they’re a little disconcerting, but there’s plenty of professionally-accredited benchmarks to go around. I believe my Phenom 9700 chip also suffer from the TLB errata which adds at least a 10% performance burden. Fortunately this problem will be fixed in the retail versions shipping next year.

Playing Team Fortress 2 at 1680×1050 with 8xAA and 16xAF around 70fps constant is easily just short of pure bliss. I’ve also been able to finally experience Crysis for the first time which looked fudging-unbelievable under DirectX 10. Remarkably the Radeon HD 38xx series is also the first to support DirectX 10.1. Last but not least, a game which is not receiving as much attention in benchmarks as it should, Solitaire also runs very well.

Windows Vista, since it’s multithreaded, also benefits a great deal from the quad-core processor. For example, I no longer see a “Welcome” screen as it zooms right from the pearl animation to my desktop. Only if I could type four times as fast, I’m sure Word will also benefit from the performance boost.

AMD OverDrive tool

Another benefit of the Spider platform integration is the AMD OverDrive tool. It is a Windows environment overclocking tool targeted at more amateur enthusiasts who want more bang for their buck. Because it is Windows based, it is inherently less risky than down-and-dirty BIOS overclocks. It has the added benefit of live feedback through the built-in benchmark tool which you could run to see immediate results. Don’t expect to break 3DMark records with this tool, but it’s a nice gesture at the enthusiasts from AMD.

In conclusion, Spider is a meaningful brand and a great desktop platform. For Phenom, a few early adopters suffer the fate of a rather significant design flaw, but hopefully when the Phenom models (re)launch early next year, the problem will have been fixed. For ATI, Radeon HD 38xx is a great high-end GPU that only falls a little short of the more expensive NVIDIA counterparts. But if money is no object, you can’t go wrong with four of them in CrossFire X configuration.

18 insightful thoughts

  1. Let’s hope they can fix the little problems soon. BTW why is the WinSAT score limited? Shouldn’t it be open? Or do we all have a 5.9 score next year? (Wouldn’t make any sense)

  2. WinSAT will be updated as part of SP1 to go beyond the 5.9 range. WinSAT isn’t really artificially limited to 5.9, it’s more that the configuration files for WinSAT don’t quaintify what sort of hardware qualifies as being beyond the “5.x” range. WinSAT is not solely a performance based assessment, it is a performance/feature based assessment. When Vista went RTM, quad core chips were not available. Neither were the latest round of ATi/nVidia graphics cards, or DDR3 RAM. All these new items (presumably) will be taken into account once you re-assess your performance under SP1. Note, no performance numbers will go down, but new hardware that currently rates as a 5.9 could go up.

  3. “If Joe (and remember Joe doesn’t read 500 RSS feeds) walks into a store and sees one computer with “Spider”, and another with “Intel QX6600, NVIDIA Geforce 8800GT, NVIDIA Nforce 690i”, you can see where AMD has the upper hand.”

    I’m not seeing it. All Joe will see is:

    AMD “Spider” and
    Intel Nvidia

    Which one would the Average Joe pick? Intel and Nvidia of course. Who would want to buy a “Spider”?

    Of course it would never go that far anyway because the first thing they will focus on is price, then looks, then if they could do the same things they could do on the old machine (peripherals and the like).

  4. Someone needs to seriously tell AMD that Long is Chinese and thus don’t celebrate Christmas and therefore shouldn’t get awesome stuff like this <_<

  5. I really like AMD, they got cool stuff coming out and at really competetive prices. Unfortunately the same cant be said for the performance of their products. On the other hand saying Intel & nVidia has better performance is more or less beating a dead horse as that point has been driven through more than enough – AMD’s focus is on the mainstream market.

    Also OverDrive is a nifty tool, some mobo manufacturers like Gigabyte offer something similar but to be frank they are worse than useless. (And @ Chad: Dont use nTune its absolute rubbish and its a proven fact – use RivaTuner to overclock and set fan speeds, and then artifact/stability test with ATi Tool 0.27 Beta 3)

    I might consider letting my next computer being an AMD-ATi system – it all depends on what the situation is going to be once the upgrade is coming on. Simply because its decent (and overclockable if anything) hardware for cheap money!

  6. Wait a moment, let me get this right, you’re saying you Spider passes the mark even though we have L3 cache issues, and even WITHOUT the L3 cache patch the Phenom STILL isn’t as good as the year-old Core 2 design clock-for-clock? Not to mention the 125W TDP for the Phenom 9700, compared with the 105W TDP of the Q6600? I won’t even start on pricing…

    The Radeom 3850 can get away with aggressive pricing. I find it difficult, however, to recommend Phenom to anyone with a straight face. _MAYBE_ later in 2008 when they release their new stepping and trim the price a little they will be “competitive” again.

  7. @Ed: I wouldn’t say it matches or surpasses what Intel, but AMD has made a good stride from where they were at the beginning of year. The TLB problem and subsequent delay hasn’t helped their cause, but they should get pretty close to Intel Q1 next year.

    After that, they will probably make more progress with faster clocks and perhaps more power efficient designs. Intel will no doubtly also make strides with 45nm and the like, but so far there doesn’t seem to be any plans which will leapfrog them yet again.

  8. I hate you Long. You get to enjoy computing bliss while I wade through the suckage that is Celeron and PC133 RAM.

    Pure hatred, I tells ya.

  9. That’s nice and all, but my money is never going to be spent on AMD or ATI, Intel and Nvidia all the way for my bang for the buck.

    I’d use them of course if it were given to me, but I’d never buy that configuration. AMD needs to hit back hard, they need to be the leader, it keeps Intel honest. ATI (I know they merged with AMD)…I think they’ll be able to pull it off.

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