Opinion: Did We Expect Too Much of AMD Bulldozer?
After reading Chris Angelini's thorough review of AMD's first Bulldozer CPU, the FX-8150, I have to admit that I was somewhat confused. Didn't AMD claim a few weeks ago that the FX would be the world's fastest CPU?
Not that I was first in line to buy this processor; and not that I cried my eyes out over the test results. Chris' conclusion was that, for the price, he would rather choose Intel's i5-2500K than the FX-8150. I expected the FX to do better and it appears that most other potential buyers of a high-performance chip did as well. The most positive review conclusion I read yesterday was that FX-8150 is a "mixed bag." In PR and marketing, that is not what you are aiming. AMD, how did that happen? Why did we expect so much and why did we get - my apologies - so little?
I am not going to chime in on the hardware architecture. It is what it is and if you want to debate whether this is a true 8-core chip or not, and why it occasionally outperforms Intel's chip and loses in other benchmarks, Chris has all the information you need. What I don't quite understand is why AMD laid a foundation that would go on to lift the expectation layer and why the company actively participated in a scenario that moved performance expectations into fantasy territory, instead of correcting the public expectation layer.
The problem AMD is facing now is the fact that the FX-8150 was the launch product for Bulldozer, which was originally announced more than four years ago. By underwhelming reviewers and, ultimately, its loyal customer base, the entire Bulldozer image has been damaged and it will take a lot of effort to recover. Imagine this had been a quarterly earnings report and how the financial community would chastise AMD for yesterday's results.
I have no idea who made the decisions to position the PR and marketing for the FX series, but it is marketing that has to accept the blame. On September 13, AMD circulated images of the highest-clocked CPU and its Guinness World Record achievement with a 8.429 GHz CPU. You could argue that this resulted since the AMD CPU does not have a cold bug and allowed a ridiculously low temperature via liquid helium , but it was the marketing trend that built up the expectations for an insanely fast CPU.
The icing on the cake was a press release issued the very same day. It was entitled "AMD Showcases World's Fastest CPU". Who would have thought, based on that statement, that the FX-8150 would end up just on the upper end of Intel's mainstream product line? If you ignored all reporting and simply went by what AMD said, I would have expected a CPU that blew Intel's higher end CPUs such as the Core i7-980X out of the water.
I was told that there are different ways how to interpret "world's fastest CPU" and that expression may have only referred to the clock speed. I don't buy that, by the way, because it was AMD that explained to me in 2000 that clock speed and performance cannot be directly compared. They even put me in a Chevy Corvette Z06 (which represented the Pentium 4 at the time) and a Dodge Viper (which represented the Athlon) on a racetrack to provide an explanation for their reasoning. So, why would we suddenly describe performance with clock speed again?
Of course, with the FX-8150, there was also the case of a press preview event prior to launch where hardware reviewers had the first opportunity to see the finalized CPU in action. However, at that particular event, only multi-threaded applications were allowed and reviewers did not have an opportunity to look at the single-threaded performance. In such a case, you already know that something is up, but you scratch your head over the communication strategy, because it was obvious that there may be problem with single-threaded performance. Reviewers would come back and bite AMD with their reviews on launch day.
Why would you hold back that information and risk that the expectations in the product will not be met? The entire launch of the FX-8150 is close to a trainwreck and caused some discussions here what the reasons may have been. Did we expect too much? And if we did, why? Did the community build up unreasonable expectations or did AMD? I feel, and it seems that there is a certain consensus, that AMD at least participated in this trend and pumped expectations with the ultra-long development time, hand-picked benchmarks and especially its Guinness World Record one month ago. At the very least, AMD is guilty of not correcting expectations that had spun out of control. It could have been much clearer about the positioning of the CPU.
The launch somewhat reminded me of the introduction of Intel's first Core 2 (65 nm Conroe) processor back in 2006, the processor that brought Intel's desktop CPUs back from the dead and went on to nearly kill AMD. In our initial briefings, I remember Intel as being extremely conservative with its performance estimates. In the end, Conroe arrived with a performance boost that was 80 percent higher than the company initially had promised. It was Intel's conservative communication that caught AMD completely on the wrong foot. Just three months before the launch of Core 2, AMD told me in interviews just how confident they were that the Athlon X2 would keep or immediately regain the performance crown from Intel, should Intel in fact capture it. I was not sure if AMD already knew how strong Conroe was and their answers were marketing bubbles, or if they actually fell into Intel's trap.
On some occasions in the past, AMD had a tendency to overstate processor performances and the outcome has never been favorable for the company. It just doesn't look good if you promote an unrealistic expectation, as the reviews will come in at some point a reveal the actual picture. The unfortunate outcome with the FX-8150 is that, for some users, this may be the best processor for the money they can buy. However, those users may now be in doubt and rather consider a competing Intel processor as the better and safe buy. A much more modest marketing approach with a clear product positioning would have helped AMD to launch Bulldozer in a more positive light.
Granted, Intel and AMD are not making their money with high-end processors that cost $500 or more. The money is made with volume processors. At $245, the FX-8150 is already an expensive volume processor, but it is well within reach for those who are considering to spend at least somewhere between $800 and $1000 on a complete system. However, to reach those users, AMD's marketing will have to rely on its Guinness World Record overclocking event and its ability to convey that eight cores are better than four. I am not sure if that will give AMD enough firepower against Intel.
So, what do you think? Did I expect too much from AMD? Or did AMD marketing go too far?