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  AMD's 90nm process, a success story? 
  Dec 01, 2004, 07:30am EST 
By: Sander Sassen

Intel has been shipping Pentium 4 processors based on its 90nm Prescott core for well over a year now. Only their high-end Xeon and Pentium 4 Extreme Edition processors are currently still manufactured in 130nm, which partly explains why they carry such a hefty pricetag. Ever since Intel introduced these Prescott processors they have been criticized for their high power drain and excessive heat production. This is especially true in comparison to the previous 130nm generation based on the Northwood core. Nevertheless Intel has been shipping them by the millions and although they announced that there would be no 4GHz Pentium 4 a few months ago they quietly introduced the 3.8GHz just recently. Clearly that means that Intelís 90nm process works, or at least works well enough to abandon the 130nm process and transition all product lines to 90nm. Regardless of that the end user seems to think that Intelís 90nm process is broken and that AMDís 90nm process is working like a charm, but is it?

This could very well be the first victory AMD manages to secure. Despite model numbers, performance indexes and 64-bit instruction sets, AMD has not been very successful at convincing the end user that their products are competitive with Intelís, people would still much rather buy a Pentium than an Athlon. Yet people seem to think that AMD has found a way to make 90nm work and ship processors that arenít producing excessive amounts of heat, like Intelís, which makes them all the more appealing. In reality AMD is producing 90nm processors up to a certain clockspeed, for a reason, as this prevents them from running hot. So why does AMD not transition all their product lines to 90nm? Or starts shipping their full product line, from entry level Sempron to high-end Athlon FX in 90nm like Intel has done?

In fact AMDís 90nm process is faced with its own set of problems which prevent it from doing so without running into the same problems as Intel. AMD and IBM have been cooperating on developing 90nm technology ever since they announced their joint venture a few years ago, but IBM also manufactures 90nm PowerPC processors which are used by Apple. And Apple has been having quite some problems to keep up with AMD and Intel in processor clockspeed, primarily because IBM has failed to deliver a PowerPC processor operating at clockspeeds over 2.5GHz. IBM actually released some information about the PowerPC 970FX processor recently that discusses this, which points out that the 970FX puts out moderate amounts of heat at 2GHz, but turns into a 100-watts furnace at 2.5GHz.

What weíre looking at here is that the 90nm SOI process developed by AMD and IBM runs into a similar set of problems as Intel has. At some point the processor needs to be fed with a higher voltage to enable higher clockspeeds but due to the higher voltage starts leaking power which significantly increases its heat production. That is exactly why IBM fails to ship 3GHz PowerPC processors to Apple, the heat production would simply be too much to properly manage. But thereís more, at these higher voltages the maximum POH, power on hours, of the processor is cut by a significant margin, at a 1.3-volts core voltage it is cut to <50.000 hours, whereas at 1.2-volts it is 100.000 hours. Of course PowerPC processors are not to be compared directly to Athlons, but the process technology used is the same, so the same can be applied to them, explaining exactly why AMD has yet to introduce faster processors based on the 90nm process.

So what does this tell us? Simply that AMD is having its own set of problems with 90nm, it is hitting a clockspeed wall, much like Intel has, which prevents them from introducing faster processors. Unlike Intel, that basically launched their Prescott core Pentium 4 processors regardless of their power consumption and heat production, AMD only released processors that run at a, relatively speaking, low clockspeed, so heat production is manageable. One of the reasons why they have not been promoting their 90nm processors that much is to simply avoid the obvious question why they donít ship faster processors at 90nm, which would be more economical and also result in higher volume shipments. The answer, as explained, is that they simply canít yet as theyíll run into exactly the same problems as Intel, with processors generating over a 100-watts of heat. In a few months time however, when the second generation 90nm process debuts, again developed in a joint venture with IBM, it should alleviate some of these problems and make 3GHz or even faster AMD processors a reality. Until then donít expect AMD to shift itís full product line to 90nm just yet, once they do issue a press release about their top-of-the-line processor being manufactured in 90nm, youíll know they pulled it off.

Sander Sassen.

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