AMD launches 4x4 platform Quad FX

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Sunnyvale (CA) - AMD today announced availability of its four-core platform knows as ""4x4."" Called Quad FX, the technology represents the new flagship enthusiast platform from AMD, but it isn't quite the Core 2 Quad beater many expected. It is much more a cutting edge workstation platform - with all advantages and disadvantages.

A look at AMD's Quad FX platform ...

It's easy, as someone who tries to stay up to date on the newest CPUs, to get excited or disappointed about AMD's 4x4 platform, which has received the commercial name Quad FX. While Intel's recently released quad-core chip Kentsfield is a straightforward quad-core upgrade for enthusiasts who have used single- or dual-core processors so far, Quad FX is likely to become a very polarizing technology, at least initially. If you know what makes it scream, it can unleash tons of horsepower; if you buy it just because it's the latest and greatest, the platform may disappoint.

In its basics, Quad FX does not just relate to new processors, it's actually a platform. It received its own dual-socket motherboard (Asus L1N64-SLI), a new chipset (Nvidia 680a) and new processors. Comparable to an Opteron dual-socket platform, AMD will offer three new Athlon 64 FX processors for Quad FX: The FX-70 (2.6 GHz), FX-72 (2.8 GHz) and FX-74 (3.0 GHz), which use the new socket 1207. While that means that current FX processors (FX-60, FX-62) cannot be used for Quad FX motherboards, AMD said that its upcoming quad-core FX processors (code-named ""Agena FX"") will continue to use the 1207 socket, which allows users to run up to eight cores in such a system by mid 2007. Reasons for going with a new socket included the addition of Hypertransport lines and allowed AMD to address power consumption requirements of the platform, company representatives told us.

Just in case you are wondering: Yup, Quad FX works only with an Nvidia chipset at this time, despite AMD's recent acquisition of ATI. AMD representatives said that Nvidia's chipset currently is the highest performing chipset, which made the decision for the 680a somewhat easy. AMD declined to comment on a possible Crossfire version for Quad FX but we were told that ""this is a very competitive market"" and an AMD-branded chipset may become available ""rather sooner than later.""

4x4 is officially called ""Quad FX,"" but there isn't a ""Quad FX"" logo. Instead, AMD chose the short cut ""DSDC,"" which stands for dual socket, direct connect"".

All three processors are built in 90 nm, use AMD's 2 GHz Hypertransport bus, integrate 2 x 1 MB L2 cache and are rated at a maximum power consumption of 125 watts - or 250 watts for a 2-processor package. AMD declined to comment on future processor versions, but sources told TG Daily that an Athlon 64 FX-76 (3.2 GHz) can be expected to debut early in Q2 2007. Agena FX, which will use a native quad-core, is currently scheduled to launch with clock speeds of 2.7 - 2.9 GHz and a Hypertransport connect that is rated at more than 4 GHz in early Q3 2007.

All that horsepower will buy a lot more performance, according to AMD: Compared to an FX-62 dual-core chip, raytracing may run up to 103% faster, video editing will gain up to 56%, and other multithreaded applications such as Cinebench up to 60%. However, while Intel's Core 2 Extreme QX6700 can excel at almost any discipline, Quad FX systems aren't quite gaming systems, but rather multitasking, or as AMD calls it - ""megatasking"" - machines. Translation: The more applications you throw at it at the same time, the more you can see the system's capabilities. For example, AMD claims that a Quad FX system can run to demanding games as well as HD video encode and decode at the same time. Such a scenario may not be common today, but software developers always have found a way to make use of available computing power and we have no doubts that Quad FX will be exhausted as well.


What do you buy? Dual-core, Quad FX or Intel's Core 2 Extreme QX6700?

If you view Quad FX as a ""megatasking"" platform or perhaps even as a workstation, the technology is very enticing. Coupled with the Nvidia 680 chipset, you can install up to four graphics cards via SLI and up to 12 SATA hard drives for a theoretical maximum storage capacity of currently 9 TB (12 x 750 MB). Of course, in that case you not only have to deal with quite some cost, but also with significant power consumption. While a typical Quad-FX system will run just fine on a 750 watt power supply, a fully equipped system will easily top that margin and will require a much more capable unit. The overall huge power draw - 250 watts from the processors alone - prompted Tom's Hardware to speculate that a Quad FX system may require special cooling units. A maximum result in performance per watt clearly isn't AMD's goal with Quad FX at this time.

In terms of price, Quad FX looks like a good deal. AMD prices two FX-70 chips at $599, two FX-72s at $799 and two FX-74s at $999. Given the fact that these socket 1207 processors have been in production for some time and demand may be in line with previous FX processors (which in fact means twice the number of actual processors have to be available), there should be ample supply at launch and retail pricing should be close to AMD's tray prices. A second look reveals that Quad FX isn't a cheap quad-core system and, in most cases, may outrun the cost of a Core 2 Extreme QX6700 system. Add to the processors the cost of the motherboard (which is expected to retail between $350 and $400), four memory modules and graphics cards and you are quickly entering stratospheric regions well beyond $5000.

Probably one of the major drawbacks of Quad FX, from an enthusiast point of view, may be the fact that it is a dual-socket platform. While AMD told us that some AMD enthusiasts have been upgrading their systems to dual-socket Opteron systems, such a platform is not suited for all consumer or enthusiast applications. For example, running two processors can create protocol overload in certain application scenarios resulting in less than single dual-core processor performance. Also, two sockets are not supported by every operating system: For example, the upcoming Windows Vista versions Home and Premium only support one socket, while dual-socket support is limited to the Business, Enterprise and Ultimate variants. AMD told us that that Quad FX is geared towards Vista Ultimate computers, which adds another chunk to the bill: Vista Ultimate will retail for $400 as a full version and for $260 as an update.

So, if you are not into megatasking and not willing to shell out a boatload of your hard earned money, is Intel's Kentsfield processor or a dual-core FX system the better universal choice? AMD representatives indicated that, for pure gaming, a Core 2 Extreme QX6700 indeed may be the better choice over a Quad FX system (if it really has to be a quad-core processor). Athlon 64 X2 and single dual-core FX processors address a different market and it remains to be seen what impact Quad FX will have on these chips. According to our most recent price/performance charts, a single FX-62 currently sells in the range of about $700, which, at first look, makes it a bad deal given the fact that one can buy two FX-70s now for about $600.

AMD told us that we shouldn't expect any price cuts for X2 and FX processors for the immediate future. The fact that the special needs of Quad FX systems will make such computers much more expensive than dual-core enthusiast PCs and the circumstance that this new platform is really aimed at a very specific application environment - ""megatasking"" - justifies that move.

What makes AMD's Quad FX truly exciting is its unique technology approach as well as AMD's vision for it: Running two quad-core processors in one computer could offer a whole new world of processing power - once there is a variety of mainstream software available to support such a platform. Accordingly, Patrick Schmid, who reviewed a Quad FX system for Tom's Hardware, concluded that the platform is ""brilliant from a technology standpoint"" but that ""its time hasn't come yet.""