Building Up Bulldozer: AMD Reintroduces 'FX' Brand

AMD announced the relaunch of its high-end 'FX' processor brand at E3 today, in a move clearly timed to grab the attention of gamers and computing enthusiasts. For those of you who aren't familiar with the brand, it dates back to 2003 and the launch of AMD's then-new 64-bit, K8 architecture. At the time, the standard Athlon 64 brand applied to processors based on Socket 754 with just one channel of DDR RAM. This solution was quite competitive against Intel's fastest P4 Northwood processors, but AMD opted to do more than just match Northwood's performance.

Athlon 64 FX processors used Opteron's Socket 940, matched the P4's dual-channel DDR400 memory configuration, and were clocked at 2.2GHz as opposed to the 2GHz that was standard for the vanilla Athlon 64 3200+. For several years thereafter, the FX brand was reserved for AMD's fastest, highest-performance desktop processor.

The chip that started it all.

Intel's resurgent Core 2 Duo put the kibosh on AMD's Athlon 64 FX brand almost from the beginning. AMD struggled to fight back by offering a dual-socket motherboard and faster FX-class processors, but the company's Quad FX  brand was widely criticized as consuming much more power without offering competitive performance. By the end of 2007, the FX brand was dead in the water.

Brand Positioning

AMD's PR hints at what consumers can expect. "AMD's FX brand will enable an over-the-top experience for PC enthusiasts," said Leslie Sobon, vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing, AMD. "By combining an unlocked, native eight-core processor, the latest in chipset technology, and AMD's latest graphics cards, FX customers will enjoy an unrivalled feature set and amazing control over their PC's performance."

Previously, AMD had said only that Zambezi would be a 4-8 core product; this new announcement implies that AMD may reserve the octal core products for its highest-end FX processors. There's no word on whether or not the company will release a hexa-core processor. Doing so would allow the company to sell processors that didn't fully qualify as eight-core products.

AMD's decision to re-launch the FX brand implies that Bulldozer's performance is good enough to challenge Intel in ways previous Phenom II parts couldn't. Zambezi, however, is unlikely to retake the performance crown from Sandy Bridge and Westmere in absolute terms.

It makes much more sense for AMD to position future Bulldozer FX products at price points that challenge Intel's Sandy
Bridge and Westmere processors. Intel's quad-core Sandy Bridge-based 2600K currently sells for $314 at NewEgg, while the cheapest six-core Gulftown processor (i7-970, 3.2GHz) is $595. An octal-core Bulldozer FX processor could slip neatly between the two Intel chips with a price/performance ratio that's competitive with both.

AMD has kept its cards close to its chest as far as Bulldozer's performance is concerned, but the return of FX branding is a good sign. At the very least, it suggests AMD is on the verge of shrinking the gap between its own products and Intel's Core i7/i5/i3 family.