It’s the epic, age-old battle that just keeps being resurrected. Chip-giant Intel and the underdog Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) go head-to-head for desktop dominance. So what will 2008 hold for desktop processors? We’ve uncovered both company’s plans for 2008 to allow you to decide just which purchase will suit your home or small business.

The harsh reality for AMD is that over the past two years, Intel has absolutely dominated the market in terms of performance. But that’s just one half of the price-performance ratio, and AMD's willingness to slash prices and aggressively pursue the low- and midrange tiers of the desktop-computing market cannot be overrated, despite the company's technological lag.

Intel overview

At this point in time, it appears that Intel is far ahead of its primary competition in the CPU performance race. Critics and consumers alike have unanimously recognised the chip maker's Core 2 microarchitecture as vastly superior to AMD's processors. These circumstances smell like bad news for AMD fans - particularly at the high end.

Intel's current CPU road map is a continuation of the company's "tick-tock" strategy. According to this approach, each year the company alternates its emphasis between shrinking its CPU fabrication process and implementing a new microarchitecture.

Odd-numbered years see Intel concentrate on die shrinkage. Hence the shrinkage of the Core 2 processor line to an efficient and speedy 45nm process in 2007.

In even-numbered years, the company implements the "tock" in its tick-tock strategy and releases an entirely new CPU microarchitecture. Hence the planned release of Nehalem later this year. But before we jump into the game-changing aspects of Nehalem, let's take a closer look at the chip maker's Core 2 CPU plans for the first half of 2008.

Penryn Core 2 processors: 45nm and more

Penryn, the 45nm version of the Core 2 architecture, was the darling of CPU enthusiasts in 2007 because it delivered on both Intel's and consumers' price-performance expectations. According to numerous independent tests and the usual assortment of hardcore enthusiast sites, Penryn Core 2 processors offer a 20 percent increase in performance on average.

Additionally, the smaller size of these CPUs means that Intel has been able to mass produce more processors per wafer of silicon, resulting in lower prices and higher profit margins for Intel. Other new and improved features in Penryn chips include improved Virtualisation Technology, multimedia-enhancing SSE4 instructions and improved power consumption. For the majority of 2008, Intel will continue to exploit the substantial performance advantages Penryn processors currently enjoy over AMD processors.

NEXT PAGE: Intel concentrates on the extreme high-end of the performance spectrum with its first consumer octo-cores

We investigate exactly what chip-giant Intel and underdog AMD have up their sleeves for 2008

The first consumer octo-cores

At the extreme high end of the performance spectrum, Intel has several new CPUs in store for the first half of 2008. Both the QX9770 and QX9775 processors are Extreme Edition processors clocked at 3.2GHz, offering a slight increase on the 3GHz QX9650, which was released at the end of 2007.

The kicker for these two CPUs, which will be released in coming weeks, is that both represent a leap in front-side bus (FSB) speeds from 1333 to 1600MHz. The QX9770 will operate on Intel's pending X48 chip set, which supports the 1600 FSB bump in speed, it is also compatible with the slower X38 set.

The QX9775 is built for Intel's new server-inspired LGA771-based Skulltrail platform, which will allow hardcore users to plug two of these quad-core processors into a single motherboard, offering the first octo-core application for consumers.

In addition to running at 3.2GHz, both processors will feature astonishingly large 12MB L2 caches. Priced around £750, these CPUs will be far from cheap. It’s likely that Intel will roll out another iteration of Extreme Edition processors running at 3.4GHz, possibly up to 4GHz, before the year's end.

Quad-cores (and dual-cores) for the rest of us

Intel will also be rolling out non-extreme Penryn Q- and E-class processors throughout the course of 2008 (Q stands for quad-core, while the E-class is the standard Core 2 Duo line). Within weeks, we'll begin to see the first of these made available to consumers.

At the midrange, Intel will release numerous quad- and dual-core CPUs under the desktop Core 2 and server-based Xeon labels. It's worth noting that these quad-core processors are not "native" quad-core, instead they consist of two dual-core dies joined at the hip.

In the first quarter of 2008 alone, we'll see the release of the Core 2 Quad Q9300 (2.5GHz clock speed with a 6MB L2 cache), the Q9450 (2.7GHz, 12MB L2 cache) and the Q9550 (2.8GHz, 12MB L2 cache). All three processors will run on a 1333MHz front-side bus and Socket LGA775.

Near the third quarter of 2008, we'll see the Q9400 (2.7GHz, 6MB L2) and the Q9650 (3GHz, 12MB L2). Both of these processors will run on the LGA775 socket and a 1333 FSB. If you're keeping track, the "50" designator on Q-series CPUs indicates a 12MB L2 cache.

A sure sign that market dynamics in the CPU business have greatly changed in the past few years is the fact that 45nm dual-core 2.6GHz to 3.3GHz Core 2 Duo processors are now considered the bottom rung of mid-range processors.

In the first half of 2008, Intel will release a series of 45nm Core 2 Duos, including the E8190 (2.7GHz), E8200 (2.7GHz), E8300 (2.8GHz), E8400 (3.0 GHz) and E8500 (3.2GHz). Sometime in the third quarter, the E8600 (3.3GHz) will debut. All of these CPUs are Socket LGA775 and will feature 6MB L2 caches, run on a 1333MHz front-side bus and support Intel's Virtualization Technology.

The lowest end of the Core 2 Duo spectrum will feature a new 65nm Core 2 Duo CPU: the 2.6GHz E4700, which sports a 2MB L2 cache and runs on an 800-MHz FSB. Also on tap is the Penryn-based E7200, a 2.5GHz chip with a 3MB L2 cache and 1066-MHz FSB speeds. Neither of these processors will be capable of virtualisation.

NEXT PAGE: As Intel gets ready to present Nehalem to the market, we take a look at its features.

As Intel and AMD prepare for battle once again, we check out the processor offerings for 2008 from both companies.

Hello, Nehalem

Nehalem, Intel's code name for its next big leap in CPU technology, is named after a small town near the northwest corner of Oregon. The name originally refers to a north-western tribe of Native Americans known more commonly as the Tillamook.

In keeping with the company's tradition of premiering new CPU microarchitectures in even years, Nehalem will represent a fairly significant enhancement over current Core 2 processor technology. In fact, the buzz around this new processor class has indicated that it will represent the biggest set of changes since Intel released the Pentium Pro in 1995.

We've outlined the most important new features below:

Integrated memory controller - This is perhaps the biggest news and the biggest philosophical/structural change in Nehalem. Intel has confirmed that this processor will mark the demise of the Northbridge memory controller. By integrating the memory controller - the logic chip used to handle the input and output of data moving to and from memory - on to the CPU core, Intel will circumvent the throughput limitations imposed by the front-side bus.

The result will be data transfer rates up to 32Gbit per second. This is an important consideration, given Intel's ambitious multicore plans for this new chip. Intel's name for its new memory controller is the Intel QuickPath Interconnect.

The decision to move to an integrated memory controller has stirred some controversy amongst AMD fans, who have derisively commented that Intel finally understands what AMD did many years ago. Beyond reducing memory access speeds and latencies, the integrated memory controller should also offer reduced power consumption.

DDR3 memory - Another big architectural change is the shift to faster DD3 SDRAM.

Native quad-core, octo-core and beyond - Nehalem is being constructed from the ground up to permit native (meaning all cores on a single die) quad- and octo-core functionality. Given this, it's easy to assume that we'll see dual-die 16-core processors in 2009.

Integrated graphics - In September 2007, Intel announced that Nehalem would also have the capacity for integrated graphics, meaning that 3D graphics processors would be located on the same chip as the CPU. The important distinction between Intel's integrated graphics and AMD's approach is that in Nehalem, the graphics processor will not be integrated at the die level. Instead, it will be on the same piece of silicon, but on a separate die.

Other enhancements in the Nehalem microarchitecture include an improved version of hyperthreading and dramatically improved simultaneous multithreading, which will allow multiple processor cores to pool available cycles and memory to better handle CPU-intensive applications. Improved shared caching at the L2 and L3 levels will further help these processors perform more effectively.

It's important to note that Nehalem does not represent a reduction in die size. This shift will come in 2009 when Intel shrinks the Nehalem architecture to 32nm in the processor family currently code-named Westmere. Assuming Intel stays on its tick-tock routine, in 2010 we'll see another brand new processor microarchitecture, currently code-named Gesher.

In terms of specific CPUs, the first wave of Nehalem desktop chips (currently code-named Bloomfield) will be released in late 2008. Internet speculation has indicated that the quad-core variants of these Nehalem-based Bloomfield processors will likely feature 8MB of shared L3 cache and sport three separate DDR3 memory channels. It's likely that we'll also see octo-core variants of Bloomfield in the fourth quarter of 2008 as well.

On the server side, Intel has two chips in development code-named Beckton and Gainestown. Internet rumours have indicated that Beckton will be a native octo-core CPU (with 16 cores available in a dual-socket configuration), while Gainestown will be more like Bloomfield.

NEXT PAGE: Intel's plans for mobile CPU's and AMD's assault on the chip giant

We've uncovered both Intel and AMD's plans for processors in 2008, so just what will consumers see coming to market over the next year?

Intel's mobile CPU highlights

Around March or April, Intel will release the mobile version of its Penryn processor under the Core 2 brand. Various mobile CPUs will be released throughout 2008, and it's highly likely that consumers will see quad-core mobile processors from Intel in the second half of the year, possibly as early as late spring. It is not clear what clock speed these processors will run at, but a version that Intel showed in October 2007 sported two shared 6MB L2 caches on the die.

In the same time frame, Intel will launch an all-new Centrino mobile platform code-named Montevina that includes a new CPU, a new chipset and a new wireless adaptor.

Montevina's new chipset is code-named Cantiga and will mark the debut of a 1066MHz front-side bus at the mobile level. Shiloh, the code name for the new wireless adaptor, has been rumoured to support WiMax (also known as 802.16), a long-range protocol that theoretically permits the transmission of wireless data signals over ranges of up to 30 miles, although it has never been put into practice in any consistent way. Montevina is also rumoured to support the new DisplayPort standard, which specifies a methodology for connecting a PC to displays and external audio sources.

In the first half of 2008, Intel will release an ultramobile processor code-named Silverthorne. This 45nm CPU is an integral component of Intel's future CPU plans, particularly in the expanding universe of smartphones and other internet-ready handheld devices. The key to Silverthorne is its extremely low-power consumption. Intel has reported that these processors' power needs are about 15 times lower than the chip maker's lowest-power dual-core processor.

AMD makes its move

For AMD, 2007 was not exactly the company's finest year. Missed ship dates and inferior processor performance blemished the spunky chip maker's fairly favourable track record of providing solid performance at affordable prices. Industry analysts were quick to point the finger at AMD's acquisition of graphics manufacturer ATI, claiming that the company had bitten off more than it could chew.

For its part, AMD has been surprisingly candid about its issues and is hopeful that 2008 will tell a different story. At the end of 2007, AMD bid its Athlon series of CPUs adieu and finally released its next-generation Phenom processors, a product line that included the intriguing presence of a triple-core line of processors. One of the biggest advantages AMD has been able to claim over Intel is that Phenom processors are the first native quad-core CPUs on the market, meaning all cores are integrated on to a single die. A shared L3 cache and improved power management were also touted as key features in this new microarchitecture.

NEXT PAGE: AMD's plans to correct its mistakes in 2007 and its 2008 Phenom lineup.

Undecided between AMD or Intel processors? We've taken at look both companies releases and plans for 2008 to help you identify what's best for you

Unfortunately, two setbacks marred the highly anticipated release of Phenom.

First, right before the processor's debut, a bug was discovered in the L3 cache that in rare instances could cause system lock-ups. The software patch that AMD subsequently released fixed this problem, but system performance took a slight hit. For now, avoid systems bearing Phenom 9500 and 9600 processors. AMD will be releasing new CPUs with this bug fixed under the 9550 and 9650 model names.

The second problem was that processor performance of the initial wave of high-end Phenoms trailed that of Intel's already-entrenched Core 2 Duo line of CPUs in head-to-head testing. There's an important caveat here: benchmarking tests between Phenom and Core 2 were waged at a fairly high range of CPU ranks. We'll know more about relative performance at the low- and midrange in coming weeks.

See also:

AMD Phenom vs Intel Penryn - the verdict

Interestingly, the current state of the market is not unlike the conditions AMD faced 10 years ago, when Intel was a consensus favourite at the performance and compatibility levels. In 2008, system buyers can expect AMD to attempt to make up ground in the price-performance ground war by aggressively pricing Phenom and old-gen Athlon processors. The end result should be highly affordable basic-use PCs.

For 2008, AMD has some fairly substantial hopes staked around a brand new platform that will feature integrated on-die graphics and a complementary new chipset that will, theoretically, harness the power of this integrated approach to computing.

The 2008 Phenom lineup

Over the course of 2008, AMD will release a number of Phenom processors at all price levels. At the performance level, we'll see the release of three processors in the quad-core Phenom FX line: the 2.6GHz FX-82, the 2.4GHz FX-90 and the 2.6GHz FX-91. All three processors will have 2MB of L2 cache and 2MB of shared L3 cache. The FX-82 will be compatible with Socket AM2+, while the two FX-9x will utilise AMD's server-oriented Socket F+, which features the speedier memory controller found in HyperTransport 3.0. It's a fair bet that we'll see more FX processors later in the year, we expect to see this series of processors top at 3.4GHz by year's end.

At the high- and mid-range CPU calibres, we'll see numerous Phenom chips. In the first quarter of 2008, AMD is scheduled to release the fixed versions of the flawed Phenom 9500 and 9600 processors released in 2007. As mentioned, they will be named the Phenom 9550 and 9650 and will run at clock speeds of 2.2GHz and 2.3GHz, respectively.

The second quarter of 2008 will bring the speedier quad-core Phenom 9700 (2.4GHz) and 9900 (2.6GHz) as well as a slightly slower 1.8GHz 9150 model. All of the aforementioned 9000 series CPUs will feature 2GB of L2 cache and 2MB of L3 cache. Later in the year, we expect to see speed jumps up to 3.4GHz in this series.

NEXT PAGE: A look at AMD's plans for triple-core processors and a new desktop platform initiative named Peruses.

As processor-giant Intel once again goes head-to-head with underdog AMD, we take a look at their plans and identify just what they will be releasing in 2008.

Triple-core - really?

A unique and intriguing addition to AMD's CPU lineup for 2008 is its 8000 series of triple-core processors. The asymmetry of triple-core processing has apparently thrown some internet pundits off their game: AMD has been subjected to a fair amount of criticism for selling what are in essence quad-core CPUs with one core disabled or unable to function. The reality is that Intel, AMD and all chip manufacturers sell CPUs with dysfunctional or underperforming cores.

These triple-core processors are intriguing because theoretically they offer a price-performance range between dual-core and quad-core CPUs. In January, AMD will release the 2.1GHz 8400 and 2.3GHz 8600 chips. In the second quarter of 2008, expect to see faster variants, including the 2.4GHz Phenom 8700, the 2.3GHz 8650 and the 2.1GHz 8450. All of these processors will feature 1.5MB of L2 cache and 2MB of shared L3 cache. Expect clock speeds of these triple-core processors to reach 3GHz by year's end.

It's important to note that, although AMD is currently creating large waves of publicity about the Phenom quad- and triple-core CPUs, the chip manufacturer will not be abandoning its dual-core lineup at the low- and mid-range tiers of the market. In fact, it is quite likely that sometime in the second quarter of 2008 AMD will release two dual-core CPUs, model numbers 6050 and 6250. Clock speeds have yet to be confirmed, but each should have 1MB of L2 cache and a 2MB shared L3 cache. It's likely that AMD will release several more dual-core models in Q3 and Q4.

From Peruses to Fusion

One of AMD's big pushes for the first half of 2008 will be a desktop platform initiative named Peruses. The desktop equivalent of Intel's Centrino notebook platform, Peruses is a combination of a Phenom processor, an ATI graphics adaptor and a new AMD chipset.

Unfortunately, it does not appear likely that AMD will achieve a 45nm fabrication process for its CPUs until the very end of 2008, and possibly not until early 2009. This forces the company to cede economic and power consumption efficiencies to Intel for this current generation of processors.

Right now, it appears that AMD is placing a considerable amount of effort and hope in an integrated line of processors known by the code name Fusion. Scheduled for release in 2009, these CPUs will combine CPU and GPU cores on to the same piece of silicon and the same die. This collocation of the central processing and graphics processing chips differs from Intel's architecture in that the CPU and GPU cores are literally integrated at the die level.

AMD hopes this approach will provide increased performance because of faster access to shared memory and other resources. Beyond improved memory allocations and thermal/power efficiencies, which will probably benefit portable computers more than desktop PCs, it is not yet clear what advantages this new design holds.

NEXT PAGE: AMD's Griffin mobile CPU and Puma mobile platform

Should Intel really be concerned about the competition from AMD? We investiagte both company's plans for 2008 in a bid to help you decide which chips will suit your needs

AMD's mobile CPU highlights

In the first half of 2008, AMD will focus on improving the power-performance ratio of its mobile CPU. Code-named Griffin, this next-gen processor will represent the debut of an interesting new power-management scheme. Griffin chips will feature a split power plane, which grants each core on a dual- or quad-core processor its own power source and should allow for some substantially increased energy efficiencies, as well as improved automated control and management over the various cores on Puma-platform CPUs.

Griffin CPUs will be paired with a brand new AMD mobile platform code-named Puma, which will mark the debut of a hybrid form of integrated graphics named Power Xpress. Also scheduled for release in the first half of 2008, this new platform will feature both a motherboard-level integrated GPU and a separate, more powerful 3D GPU.

Theoretically, this new scheme will allow for increased power savings and fairly high-powered graphics capabilities. Puma will also mandate support for the finally approved 802.11n wireless networking standard, as well as Microsoft's DirectX 10 graphics technology.

AMD is strongly looking ahead to 2009 when it plans to launch its new Fusion processors, which integrate the CPU and GPU cores. The first dual-core Fusion CPUs for notebooks should begin rolling out in the second half of 2009, followed by quad-core CPUs for notebooks at an undisclosed time.

Regardless of the company's success this year, AMD's novel approach to chip design will certainly intrigue CPU enthusiasts. At the very least it gives the company some much-needed differentiation from Intel as it attempts to recapture the price-performance magic that allowed it to make huge inroads earlier this decade.