- Fastest AMD chip ever
- 160+ motherboards at launch
- Turbo Core functionality
- Six cores for $280!
- Mixed results w/unthreaded apps
- Not all boards will get BIOS updates
- Can't beat Intel on pure performance
The fastest AMD chip ever comes very close in bridging the performance gap with rival Intel.
When Intel released their six-core Core i7-980X processor, people were wondering when AMD’s own efforts were going to bear fruit. With the release of the new Phenom II X6 CPUs, that day is finally here. The new platform comes in two flavors, the 2.8GHz X6 1055T and the 3.2GHz X6 1090T. Read on for our full review.
- Clock frequency: 3.2GHz (1090T), 2.8GHz (1055T)
- Turbo Core boost: 3.6GHz (1090T), 3.3GHz (1055T)
- Socket: AM3 (supports 125W AM2+ sockets; some will require BIOS updates)
- L1 cache: 128kB per core
- L2 cache: 512kB per core
- L3 cache: 6MB shared
- Manufacturing process: 45nm SOI
- Memory support: up to PC2-8500 DDR2 and PC3-10600 DDR3
- Supports HyperTransport 3.0, AMD-V, PowerNow 3.0, Direct Connect, Dynamic Power Management
- Price: MSRP: $279.99 (1kU) – 1090T, $199.99 (1kU) – 1055T
As it stands
Whenever we talk about a new processor, whether from AMD or Intel, we always have to touch upon the performance war between the two companies. Obviously, with 90% of the x86 processor market share, Intel has resources at their disposal, both for research and chip fabrication as well as advertising efforts, that AMD can never touch. Still, that doesn’t stop the little chip company that could from trying.
Ever since Intel introduced the Core microarchitecture as the force powering their contemporary lineup of processors, they’ve been ahead of the game compared to AMD. Performance per unit of clock speed was just too far out for AMD to really catch up. As a consequence, AMD cut prices on their CPUs across the board. We aren’t talking about minor price cuts, either – their recent introduction of the Athlon II X4 CPUs gave the world solid quad-core performance for under a hundred dollars. That’s something that Intel can’t – or at the very least, hasn’t chosen to – compete on at this point in time.
So Intel would rather have reviewers as well as consumers talk about the chip options in terms of overall performance – obviously, they win there – and AMD would rather have everyone talk about performance for the dollar, an arena that they’re currently winning. Who’s right, and by which metric should we judge each company’s efforts? In short, they’re both right. It’s nice to have the performance crown, after all, but it’s also nice to have a little money in your pocket at the end of the day. Moreover, thanks to the AM2+ compatibility of the AM3 chips, chances are if you’ve got an AMD system from the past few years, you could go out today and buy this chip for six-core computing by nightfall. Obviously, you’ll want to check with your board maker to make sure it’ll work before you drop down your hard-earned dollars.
So AMD wants to sell their products as a platform, rather than as singular chips. It’s definitely a strong point for them – since they acquired graphics maker ATI several years ago they have the unique perspective of being both a tier 1 CPU maker and a tier 1 GPU maker. As the new Phenom II X6 1090T is AMD’s latest flagship processor, it’s designed to pair up with the just-released 890FX chipset and a discrete video card from the 5000 series. When taken as a platform, there’s certainly a strong value proposition there. I’ll spoil part of the review ahead of time: Intel’s six-core CPU beats AMD’s handily. It costs a thousand dollars alone, however, and for a thousand dollars you can buy an AMD/ATI gaming system that will play any game on the market.
The market now has six-core CPUs available for general consumers to buy (multicore processors have been available in the server market for some time), so the question then becomes “Does it matter?” The rise of the quad-core processor highlighted the shortcomings of current software when it comes to multiple cores – a lot of it is unable to thread properly. What software can? Well, to properly take advantage of multiple cores, whether it’s one CPU with many cores or two physical CPUs, requires that an application be significantly parallelizable. That means that it can be broken up into little pieces and processed simultaneously on multiple cores.
Some tasks can’t handle this – they require that each step build upon the output of the previous one. Certain applications, however, were almost designed for this. Video editing, compressing, transcoding, some Photoshop filters, audio ripping, etc. all of it is great for use with multicore machines. Some games can do it, too, but not many. This is why when quad-cores really started to get big, we saw fast dual-core machines beating them for gaming at almost every turn. Even where games do take advantage of multiple cores, it’s usually on a task-by-task basis, e.g., putting the AI on one core, solving math on a second, etc. As multiple cores won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, however, that will eventually change and you’ll see games able to do more and more complex actions as a result.
While AMD made a few basic changes to their underlying microarchitecture – as one employee mentioned, whenever they make a new die, they take advantage of it to refine basic structure – – much of what went into the design of the new Phenom II X6 chips is essentially the same stuff that went into the Phenom II X4, with one major exception. Intel’s chips have had Turbo Boost functionality for a while, now, which overclocks specific cores when the chip at large is underutilized. This is more common than you might think; as we mentioned earlier not every application is capable of taking advantage of multicore CPUs. AMD’s Turbo Core function is implemented in a similar fashion, though it’s a bit more heavy-handed in that it works in groups of three. When the chip detects that only three or fewer of the cores in the new six-core chips are active, it automatically overclocks them. How much depends on which chip it is – the 1090T flagship will jump from 3.2 to 3.6GHz while the 1055T moves from 2.8 to 3.3GHz. If you haven’t figured it out by now, the ‘T’ addition to the chips’ model names signifies the presence of Turbo Core functionality, which implies that AMD will be releasing new chips in the future that lack it.
As part of the festivities surrounding the new chips, AMD also launched a new chipset: the 890FX. The 890FX is the chip maker’s flagship chipset, designed to work with high-end CPUs and discrete video cards. In fact, since it’s designed that way from the ground up, it requires those discrete video cards – there’s no onboard video available. Users looking to take advantage of the six-core chips without needing to buy a big graphics card can always purchase a board that uses the 890GX chipset – the GX signifies the presence of integrated graphics. AMD’s integrated graphics have been a strong selling point vs Intel, these past few years.
The new chipset offers up a whopping 42 PCI-Express 2.0 lanes. Those can be utilized in any number of ways. The good thing is that you won’t have to worry about constraining the speed on some devices, such as SATA3 drives and USB3.0 – yes, onboard options for those ports use the motherboard’s available bandwidth – go ahead and CrossFire it up to your heart’s content. As part of the 890FX, AMD includes the SB850 southbridge, a much-needed update that we first saw in the 890GX chipset that was released just a few weeks ago. The SB850 brings native SATA3 (6Gbps) support to up to six devices. As with Intel, however, the boards don’t support USB3.0 natively, which is a real shame. Like in the ASUS board we used in this review, most manufacturers are putting on third-party controller chips to give users at least two USB3.0 ports. ASUS’ choice of the NEC chip seems to be a pretty popular one.