Desktop Lust Update: Looking at the new AMD 4x4 Quadzilla and Intel V8

Posted by Rob Enderle, Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

Analyst Opinion - Last year around March, I talked about how cool it would be to have a laptop or desktop system that would be the PC equivalent of a Bugatti Veyron that runs 250 MPH and transforms into high speed mode. Can AMD’s and Intel’s new enthusiast platform deliver such an experience?  

At the time I wrote the article I knew of the HP Blackbird 1, which had really cool transformation capability. Unfortunately, the shipping Blackbird 2 product lost the transformation feature but was clearly one of the most impressive systems of 2007 nevertheless.  

Recently I just got in the Intel Skulltrail box and a fully configured AMD Spider system with the new 3870 X2 graphics card.  Either could be the core of an impressively powerful system, but both require some caution.
   

Multi-core:  Can you use it?

For most of last year, I used the quad-core AMD “Quadzilla” and 8-Core Intel V8 desktop systems for both gaming and much of my work.  The quad-core product was more practical, since there were few applications that would light up all eight Intel cores. The problem with the Intel box was that it only would use one graphics card while the AMD system used two. In addition, I’ve been in production on Windows Vista since launch and my 8800 Nvidia card, despite being one of the first DirectX 10 cards, didn’t like the MMOG I played most often and it took awhile to get that fixed.  In the end, I actually got more benefit from the AMD rig with dual-graphics cards then I was able to get from the Intel rig with one card.
 
Going into this year, it still seems like graphics remains the key factor, though I expect that to move to hard drives once good flash drives both become more common and more affordable.   The long term issue is that laptop computers remain, regardless of the vendor, dual-core at best. Plus, laptops represent enough of the market now that writing for more than two cores for most desktop applications isn’t a priority for software developers.  

Still, in my conversations with software vendors, as they write for two cores, they do realize that multi-core is coming and, so they don’t have to redo their work, they appear to be increasingly embracing a multi-core world. Until then, four cores is probably the high-end for most of us. Graphics will likely be where we’ll want to focus on.

Intel and AMD: Solid improvements

Intel built into its Skulltrail platform the ability to use four graphics cards; AMD countered by bringing out the 3870 X2, which is basically two graphics cards in one. Right now, you don’t really need four graphics cards for anything but if you configure one of these Intel boxes with two graphics cards, you should be able to add two more later; with AMD, you can start out with the X2 and then, probably after prices drop, you can add a second X2 when you need the extra performance. Now, with the Intel solution, this only works if you start with single slot Nvidia cards because there doesn’t seem to be room to install more than two double-wide graphics cards.  

These means you’d use something like two 8800 Nvidia GT cards costing around $230 each  for Intel to start or the 3870 X2 for around $450, if you were going with an AMD solution.  Be aware that while the ATI part supposedly supports the new DirectX 10.1 specification, the Nvidia part is still showing only DirectX 10 and there may be some risk in that. But, even if 10.1 is a Vista SP1 change, right now there are virtually no games that use DirectX 10.1.  Unfortunately, when you are paying this kind of money, future proofing is important and I would expect Nvidia to step up to this problem shortly. 

In terms of improvement, the Intel 8-core platform has come a huge distance as it was impractical in last year’s form: The current version is not only livable but impressive. The AMD platform didn’t have as far to go because it started out as less of a science experiment.  

Some Vista SP1 thoughts

One thought, if you are building one of these systems yourself, I couldn’t get Vista Gold to install on the AMD system, but the latest Vista SP1 Beta is running like a champ on it.  
As a result, were I in the market for a high end system right now I’d hold off until I can get it with Windows Vista SP1 (supposedly coming in a couple of weeks) as this patch really makes Vista sing and no matter how easy something is to do; it is always easier to have someone else do it.  In this case, letting the system builder install SP1 just makes a lot more sense.     


Wrapping up

Four cores from either Intel or AMD are likely good enough for the vast majority of performance users (most folks can easily live on two cores now).   On the AMD platform, we are still waiting for the highest performance parts to ship, and on the Intel platform we are waiting for Nvidia to provide DirectX 10.1 support. AMD is currently further ahead on graphics and Intel is further ahead on shipping processors. 

Strangely enough the perfect solution might actually be a single Intel Core2 Quad Extreme with an AMD/ATI 3870 X2 card right now.  The coolest 3870 X2 appears to be this one from GeCube, and the HP Blackbird is the only Intel box I know of that supports both the Intel Core2 Quad and ATI Crossfire  but they don’t yet show availability of the X2.  I expect this to change by the time Vista SP1 ships. 

Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts.  Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them.  Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.