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The desktop isn't dead yet: AMD refreshes its high-end chips

Desktop sales are dropping rapidly as the world becomes enamored with laptops, netbooks and smart phones. But they still constitute about half of overall computer sales. So there’s still reason to take notice when top-of-the-line chips hit the market.

Today, Advanced Micro Devices is launching its latest Dragon family microprocessors, the AMD Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition. The chip is a screamer, with four cores, or computing brains, running at 3.4 gigahertz. AMD says the chip can be seriously overclocked. That means enthusiasts can cool the chip down and run it at much higher speeds for insanely fast game computers.

It’s good to know that, even with the recession, chip advances haven’t stalled. This announcement from AMD will put pressure on Intel, whose rival chips include the Intel Core i7 920 and the Intel Core 2 Quad 9650. AMD says benchmarks show it can beat those chips hands-down. But we’ll see what Intel has to say about that.

The chips are available now and are launching in a variety of machines from smaller boutique system builders and online sites. Big name computer makers are expected to launch machines later as AMD brings the power consumption down for mainstream models, said Adam Kozak, desktop marketing manager for Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD. In a smart move, AMD has been marketing the newest desktop chips to overclocking fans.

AMD will sell the chips at $245. That by itself is an attention grabber. Time was that brand new desktop chips could command prices of $600 to $1,000. Not anymore. Still, within this segment of chips that range in price from $160 to $245, AMD is selling many millions of chips.

We’ll see if this translates into financial benefit for AMD, which is still having trouble making money amid the recession and a price war with Intel. AMD has been executing well. It introduced the Phenom II in February and has upgraded it a couple of times now. Besides launching the new processor, AMD is enhancing the platform so it can be used with DDR 3, a faster flavor of main memory, and can use a variety of tricks that get more performance for less power consumption.

There are those who would say this kind of chip is overkill, running at 140 watts in an age where laptops are king and four cores is just a few too many.