AMD Phenom II Review

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In the war between microprocessor companies, AMD has always been the underdog to the juggernaut that is Intel.  While it is essentially ingrained within American culture to vote for the underdog, it’s tough to do when they’re clearly outclassed by another player, and that’s how it’s been with AMD’s recent processors vs the Intel Core microarchitecture.  The new year brings new opportunities for upset, however, and AMD has introduced the Phenom II, the newest in their processor lineup.  With the move to a smaller manufacturing process, has AMD finally caught up, or is Intel still sprinting ahead?  Let’s find out.

Within the past few weeks, AMD has introduced two new processors: the Phenom II X4 920 and the Phenom II X4 940.  You’ll notice a certain similarity to their names, and I specifically questioned AMD on this; they swear that the names were picked before Intel introduced the Core i7 series.  I believe them, but I do think it’s a little silly and that they had enough time to change the numbers.  

Among the changes in moving from the Phenom to the Phenom II is a move to a smaller manufacturing process (65nm to 45nm).  Moving to smaller manufacturing processes generally results in cooler and more power efficient processors; it also lets manufacturers pack more transistors into a given area.  With regards to moving to a smaller manufacturing process, AMD is a year behind Intel (who plans to move to a 32nm process perhaps as soon as this fall).  In addition to the size change, there were some distinct changes made to the microarchitecture.  Older Phenom chips suffered from a “cold bug” that kept them from booting when taken to very low temperatures, a side effect of high-end overclocking.  Some features, like the ACC option in the BIOS of some motherboards, were implemented in hardware.  This also means that enabling ACC on a Phenom II is pointless and won’t result in any changes.

AMD isn’t the only chip manufacturer to come out with a new platform in recent months; Intel released its own microarchitecture update this past fall to critical acclaim.  The Core i7 series has been widely heralded as revolutionary in its speed and power, and it’s hard to deny.  The i7-based systems we’ve looked at have been some of the most powerful I’ve seen.  All that power, however, comes at a price:  upgrading to Intel’s newest platform is an expensive proposition.  In addition to the fact that the individual components carry a price premium, you can’t buy just one.  As a result of the extensive changes (the largest of which is likely moving the memory controller on-die, a move that AMD made some years prior) made to the new processor lineup, Intel moved to a new socket format, meaning a new processor purchase requires a new motherboard purchase as well.  The new motherboards use a new standard for memory, DDR3, which is still expensive since DDR2 is the dominant format.  They’ve also moved to using tri-channel memory instead of dual-channel, which means using three or six sticks of memory instead of two or four, making it a more expensive proposition to get the most performance from your system.

With the Phenom II CPU and the rest of the Dragon platform, AMD is taking things in a completely different direction.  In addition to making the processors themselves available at a lower price, AMD has designed the new chips to be used with the current socket model.  In order to upgrade, you don’t need to buy a new motherboard or new memory; you can just pop the old CPU out and drop the new one in.  Put the heatsink back on, and you’re good to go, at a substantially lower pricetag.  As new CPUs come out that support the new AM3 socket, you can buy one, drop it in your motherboard, then buy a new motherboard later on and use the same CPU.  It makes for a much less painful initial outlay, and an overall easier to justify upgrade.

So which is the better CPU?  It all depends on your metric.  It’s impossible to deny the performance of the new i7 platform, but it’s also impossible to deny the cost.  Moreover, extreme CPU speeds are becoming less and less important as the GPU takes over more of what have been tradition CPU duties.  Any modern game is almost certainly going to be GPU-bound, meaning that it’s far more dependent on a powerful graphics card than a powerful CPU.  Additionally, thanks to advances in GPGPU technology, applications like modeling, audio and video editing, computational workloads and physics reproductions can all be run on the graphics card, and often with much better results.

Benchmarks

(Updated: some tests were reran and the numbers updated)

Our benchmarking system was a custom built computer featuring AMD processors, an ASUS M3A78-T 790GX motherboard, 4 GB DDR2-1066 Kingston RAM (special thanks to Kingston for supplying that), an 80GB 7200RPM SATA hard drive and an ATI HD4870X2 running at stock speeds.

For the video benchmarks, we encoded a roughly 22 minute 1080p MPEG-2 video file to 1080p x.264.  The audio compression used 14 tracks (a total of 560MB) in uncompressed WAV format taken to 320kbps MP3 files using the LAME encoder.  Bioshock was set to 640×480 resolution, with all settings on low to avoid GPU bias.

wPrime is a PC performance benchmarking program that forces the computer to perform recursive mathematical calculations. This program is multithreaded, meaning we can take advantage of more than one core of a processor at a time, resulting in a more realistic estimate of a computer’s performance.

wPrime benchmark comparison results (lower numbers mean better performance)

CPU wPrime 32 time

Phenom II x4 940 @ 3.6 GHz

10.593s
Phenom II x4 940 @ 3.0 GHz

12.361s

Phenom x4 9850 BE @ 2.9 GHz 13.74s
Phenom x4 9950 BE @ 2.6 GHz 14.853s
Phenom x4 9850 BE @ 2.5 GHz 15.182s
Phenom x3 8750 BE @ 3.1 GHz 15.679s
Phenom x3 8750 BE @ 2.4 GHz 20.967s
Athlon x2 5050e @ 2.6 GHz 31.343s

PCMark05 and 3DMark06 CPU test performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance)

CPU PCMark05 CPU Test
3DMark06 CPU Test

Phenom II x4 940 @ 3.6 GHz

10576 PCMarks 4745 3DMarks
Phenom II x4 940 @ 3.0 GHz 9020 PCMarks 4241 3DMarks
Phenom x4 9850 BE @ 2.9 GHz 8498 PCMarks 3875 3DMarks
Phenom x4 9950 BE @ 2.6 GHz 7682 PCMarks 3551 3DMarks
Phenom x4 9850 BE @ 2.5 GHz 7340 PCMarks 3404 3DMarks
Phenom x3 8750 BE @ 3.1 GHz 7846 PCMarks 3239 3DMarks
Phenom x3 8750 BE @ 2.4 GHz 6195 PCMarks 2684 3DMarks
Athlon x2 5050e @ 2.6 GHz 5215 PCMarks 1860 3DMarks

3DMark06 overall 3D performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance)

CPU 3DMark06 Overall Test

Phenom II x4 940 @ 3.6 GHz

18984 3DMarks
Phenom II x4 940 @ 3.0 GHz 16993 3DMarks
Phenom x4 9850 BE @ 2.9 GHz 14440 3DMarks
Phenom x4 9950 BE @ 2.6 GHz 14232 3DMarks
Phenom x4 9850 BE @ 2.5 GHz 13652 3DMarks
Phenom x3 8750 BE @ 3.1 GHz 14882 3DMarks
Phenom x3 8750 BE @ 2.4 GHz 12282 3DMarks
Athlon x2 5050e @ 2.6 GHz 10366 3DMarks

Audio/Video Compression Test (lower scores mean better performance)

CPU Video Test (HH:MM:SS)
Audio Test (HH:MM:SS)

Phenom II x4 940 @ 3.6 GHz

00:12:43 00:00:30
Phenom II x4 940 @ 3.0 GHz 00:13:44 00:00:36
Phenom x4 9850 BE @ 2.9 GHz 00:14:18 00:01:20
Phenom x4 9950 BE @ 2.6 GHz 00:14:52 00:01:24
Phenom x4 9850 BE @ 2.5 GHz 00:16:08 00:01:36
Phenom x3 8750 BE @ 3.1 GHz 00:18:16 00:01:34
Phenom x3 8750 BE @ 2.4 GHz 00:21:22 00:01:57
Athlon x2 5050e @ 2.6 GHz 00:36:22 00:03:01

Bioshock performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance)

CPU Min FPS Max FPS Average FPS

Phenom II x4 940 @ 3.6 GHz

79
309
166.207
Phenom II x4 940 @ 3.0 GHz 69
299
156.892
Phenom x4 9850 BE @ 2.9 GHz 65 252 137.417
Phenom x4 9950 BE @ 2.6 GHz 74 245 137.468
Phenom x4 9850 BE @ 2.5 GHz 62 227 122.700
Phenom x3 8750 BE @ 3.1 GHz 77 250 131.937
Phenom x3 8750 BE @ 2.4 GHz 56 221 122.348
Athlon x2 5050e @ 2.6 GHz 31 192 103.919

In general, we can see a significant performance boost gained from the new Phenom II processors, and again, this is just when you set them down into the current AM2/AM2+ platform.  We can probably expect further performance improvements when the AM3 chips and boards come out, and later on when using DDR3 RAM.  What’s nice about the new platform is that you don’t have to upgrade the entire system to take advantage of the newest architecture: just buy a new chip. 

Pricing

Again, it’s true that Intel’s i7 processors will beat these new AMD chips, even when slight overclocks are applied, but let’s look at this pricing table:

CPU Price ($US)

Phenom II x4 940

229.00
Phenom II x4 920 189.00
Phenom x4 9950 BE  163.00
Phenom x4 9850 BE  144.99
Phenom x3 8750 BE 119.00
Athlon x2 5050e 89.99

That’s the current pricing structure for AMD’s processors.  The new Phenom IIs are very affordable, and even the original Phenom chips are aggressively priced.  Moreover, the new platform overclocks very well, with overclocks up to 4 GHz achieved pretty easily on air with a good cooler.

Credit: AMD

With liquid cooling you might hit 4.5 GHz.  If you’re an enthusiast and into overclocking processors, it’s nice to know that you can get a little more bang for your buck.  Speaking of which, this is where the AMD Fusion line comes into play.

Fusion, as I discussed in our review of the Dell XPS 625 desktop, is AMD’s new utility to help easily eke out better performance from your hardware.  When running Windows, the Fusion button can sit on your desktop (or reside on your start menu).  When you’re ready to game or otherwise engage a high-performance mode for demanding tasks, you just click the Fusion button and the utility will close down all of your programs, end unnecessary Windows services and even, when set properly, overclock your processor for you.  That’s a pretty great value-add, in my book. 

When set to advanced mode, you can select different profiles and watch as Fusion does its work, closing down processes.  You can even tell Fusion to what extent you want to overclock the processor, meaning you don’t need to worry about shortening its lifespan by running at higher voltages all the time.

Conclusion

In sum, AMD has a pretty hot new product on their hands.  While it’s true I would have loved to see even more raw CPU performance, it’s becoming less and less necessary as new GPGPU technologies take center stage.  I didn’t include much in the way of high-resolution gaming benchmarks in this review because they’re almost pointless: given the GPU-reliant nature of most modern games, as long as the CPU passes some minimum threshold, the game will play the same across the whole run. 

AMD is pushing the envelope, not in terms of raw performance, but in what you get for your dollar.  With a relatively affordable investment, you can get measurable improvements in terms of both raw performance and overall system speed.  At the same time, you plan upgrades, by buying new parts in steps: CPU, then motherboard, then RAM, etc.  The new Phenom II chips are evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; revolutions are expensive.  To be frank, Phenom II is what the original Phenom should have been from the beginning.  It’s nice to see AMD finally make things right.  They can’t afford to sit on their heels, however, as Intel has a very aggressive product launch schedule and not everyone will want to overclock their processors to get the best out of it.

At the end of the day, the Phenom II is what it is.  It’s not the best CPU platform out there, but its appeal is undeniable, and it certainly offers fantastic value for the money.  I feel comfortable solidly recommending the new platform to anyone already on the AMD bandwagon; even if you aren’t, take a look.  You might just be impressed enough to switch.

Pros

  • Affordable upgrade path
  • Great overclocking potential
  • AMD Fusion is a very cool utility

Cons

  • Still not as fast as the Core i7, but it is much cheaper.


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