AMD 990FX: Prepping for Bulldozer
By Rajiv Kothari on June 20, 2011
Recently, AMD released its new line of chipsets, the 900 series. In this editorial, we will discuss the high-end model, the 990FX.
As a reader of Hardware Secrets, you are well aware that our goal is to uncomplicate things, so before you continue reading this article, you should be familiar with the terminology so you won’t get confused:
“Bulldozer” is referring to AMD’s new core architecture. It is the most popular name used for the new generation of processors and has become a fairly big deal as it is tuned for performance and scalability and built from the ground up, meaning you should see a fairly long lifecycle. The key focus is on heavily threaded performance – directly competing against HyperThreading (which has been a significant factor to Intel’s dominance in the multi-core market).
The first iteration of Bulldozer-based CPUs will be called “Zambezi” – targeted for high-end desktops – and will introduce enthusiast level eight-core models (FX8000), followed by six-core (FX6000) and four-core (FX4000) models. Relatively speaking, the eight-core processors are projected to offer up to 50% performance increases in multimedia over the current Phenom II series.
Hopefully, that gives you a bit of clarification on the platform. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to post in the comments section and I’ll be sure to answer you. Read on!
AMD has a very interesting year ahead of them. In response to Intel’s successful Sandy Bridge, they aim to fight back with the upcoming Llano processor that touts strong integrated graphics and positions itself as the superior mainstream platform – generally, where the price and performance ratio comes into play – and AMD has positioned itself as a viable contender.
However, the AMD enthusiast user has been patiently awaiting their high-end Bulldozer line-up that has seen numerous delays and really missed a key opportunity to steal some of Intel’s thunder during the Cougar Point (P67/H67Q67) chipset fallout. Intel has clearly dominated the market for a long time, and it needs some healthy competition.
While there is no concrete date for the CPU yet, motherboard manufacturers have kept on schedule and released the next generation of boards that will not only support upcoming AM3+ Bulldozer processors, but also existing AM3 CPUs as well. This is a great opportunity for AMD fans to prep for the highly anticipated CPUs and an easy upgrade path for existing customers, but what about new customers? Does it make sense to purchase a 990FX board and an existing AM3-based Phenom II CPU?
So here is where it is a bit disappointing; the 990FX shares exactly the same silicon as the 890FX and has seen no major changes. Even the added SB950 is a rebadged SB850. Initially, there were hopes that the chipset and new SB950 had some major additions: adding native USB3 support, using a smaller die size, additional PCI-e lanes – but these were not added. Rather, the major features of the 990FX were key support for the eight-core processors and support for the faster HyperTransport 3.1 with signaling up to 6.4 GT/s (on 890FX you get 3.0 with up to 5.2 GT/s).
You may have also noticed that many press releases went out recently that announced AM3+ support for 890FX and that customers have been bestowed additional life to their existing AMD setups. So what is the point of 990FX?
The 990FX was introduced primarily as a way for customers to easily identify the motherboards that are guaranteed to be compatible with upcoming Zambezi AM3+ CPUs. AMD also shares the stance that the AMD 900 series chipsets are the choice for Bulldozer CPUs. This is always important for shoppers to be provided a clear option on what is the best choice for the new generation platform.
While there could be a case made to just use the existing 890FX instead, motherboard manufacturers have sweetened the pot by adding their own unique features like better components, UEFI BIOS, and improved overclocking technologies without having to revisit the older chipsets. Even more so, they’ve licensed a technology that has been dearly missed on the AMD platform and provides a major incentive for enthusiasts to merely consider the 990FX right now.
For the past two years, if you wanted to do any type of multi-GPU support on the AMD platform, you were given one option: CrossFireX. Now, NVIDIA has finally allowed SLI support to officially re-enter the AMD market with the introduction of the 990FX. An old favorite combination has returned and has been greeted with welcome arms.
If you looked back a couple years ago, budget conscience gamers loved the combination of AMD CPUs and NVIDIA graphics cards because it was such an effective duo for the price, but once AMD bought up ATI, there was (what seemed like) a kneejerk reaction to block out SLI on AMD chipsets. This gave Intel a major competitive advantage in the enthusiast realm by having more options for multi-GPU support, as key NVIDIA technologies were being heavily marketed to end users (namely 3DVision Surround, PhysX, and CUDA). In the interim, technologies like Lucid’s HYDRALogix were introduced and actually gained attention for allowing multiple NVIDIA based graphics cards on the newer AMD chipsets, but performance and compatibility still trailed the level of the officially supported formats.
Other than this, you would need to fall back on the old 980A chipset which lacked all the great new standards (USB3, SATA6) and were limited in stock (NVIDIA no longer was manufacturing chipsets). Naturally, this also would not support the new AM3+ CPUs, so it seems the voice of the end user and media finally broke through.
It’s nice to see that the option is available for NVIDIA loyalists to reach out and save some money on their CPU platform while retaining the key benefits they want out of their graphics cards. Considering we are PC users, being able to choose our parts is one of the big aspects of it, so this is always a major plus.
The AMD 990FX is a bit of a toss-up for most people, but it has key benefits for certain enthusiast users. Normally, new chipset launches are absolutely dependent on a CPU launch to fully see any adoption, but the 990FX provides that backwards compatibility to make the case for a potential clear upgrade path.
If you are an existing AMD Phenom II user, already committed to buying into Bulldozer, and absolutely want SLI with the current crop of cards, this is a no-brainer. Keep in mind there won’t be any major GPU launches until the end of the year, so the current generation of SLI-ready cards is going to be around for quite some time.
However, it is kind of a dead-end to non-AM3 owners. Most people will not want to purchase two CPUs in the same calendar year. Essentially, if you are not an existing AMD user (whether doing a major PC overhaul or looking to switch from Intel) you are better off waiting for the CPU to launch, whenever that will be. In any case, you can be assured that the prices will be competitive and provide you with another solid option for your next system build.