CPU Guide: How To Pick The Right Processor

by Reads (166,198)

Welcome to part two of Notebook Review’s Mobile CPU Guide. In this concluding part, we’re going to discuss AMD’s chips and what AMD and Intel have in store for the future. But first I would like to make a couple of brief comments.

First, Via also has a mobile processor occupying the same market space as Intel’s Atom. The Via Nano powers Samsung’s NC20 netbook. The Nano generally performs about on par with Atom, though in some cases it can be faster. I suspect if Via had marketed harder and Intel hadn’t delivered Atom, the Nano might’ve been the CPU of choice for the netbook market. Unfortunately, as I repeatedly mentioned in part one, Intel’s CULV platform and AMD’s own platform looks to supplant the cheap netbook by offering much better performance for not much more money.

Second, in order to make things easier for all involved, I’d like to point out that AMD’s nomenclature for mobile processors is in many ways much more logical than Intel’s. AMD breaks down their CPUs into essentially two lines: Athlons and Turions. The Athlons are generally AMD’s older architecture while modern Turions tend to incorporate advances from AMD’s desktop Phenom lines. Also, AMD does one very nice thing for the end user: the X suffix. X2 means a dual core processor, X3 a tri-core (desktop only, at least so far), and X4 a quad-core (again, desktop only for the time being.) This information should make things a bit tidier, but I’ll still go into some detail on AMD’s chips.

Third, AMD has recently added Athlon II, Turion II, and Turion II Ultra models to their lineup. These are based on their desktop Athlon II architecture, pared down versions with two cores. These should perform substantially faster than previous generation chips, but may not quite catch up to the clock-to-clock performance and efficiency of Intel’s mobile Core 2 processors. Since all of these chips have exactly two cores, AMD opted to ditch the X suffix.

Thus, I ultimately do have to point out that AMD’s solutions are generally inferior at this time to Intel’s in a given market, with the exception possibly being the Athlon Neo and Athlon Neo X2. Though the processors are typically slower clock-for-clock than Intel chips, the integrated graphics and discrete graphics that appear in AMD-based budget machines are vastly more powerful and capable, and their drivers are much more compatible and stable. If you plan on doing any light gaming and are on a very tight budget, an AMD-based machine with one of their Radeon HD integrated (or discrete) graphics parts would be choice.


AMD Processors

ATHLON NEO (X2)
Fastest Model: 1.6 GHz (Athlon Neo MV-40/Athlon Neo X2 L335)
Speed Range: 1.6 GHz

Incidentally at present there’s just one Athlon Neo speed grade, at 1.6 GHz. Produced as a different kind of response to Intel’s Atom, the single-core Neo is essentially an old school Athlon 64 that’s had its clock speed reduced and takes advantage of modern manufacturing processes to reduce power consumption and heat dissipation. Yet because it’s a full-fledged, albeit single core, chip with a decent architecture, the Athlon Neo provides solid performance for basic usage.

There are two odd variants floating around that appear to be similar if not identical to the Athlon Neo MV-40 chip: the Athlon 64 2650e, and the TF-20. Performance should be basically the same.

More recently, AMD introduced a dual core version of the Athlon Neo. All the same principles apply, but with an extra core (which can make all the difference in the world).

ATHLON X2
Fastest Model: 2.2 GHz (Athlon X2 QL-67)
Speed Range: 1.8 GHz ~ 2.2 GHz

Modern Athlons are basically cut-down versions of the Turions (or on the desktop, Phenoms), sporting less cache. Still, performance of these chips is adequate, just nowhere near up to par with Core 2 Duos.

I wish I had something nicer to say about the Athlon X2s, but the best word I can ever seem to come up with is “adequate.” Intel tends to beat these soundly in battery life, heat dissipation and performance, but if you’re on a budget you could still do much worse. A dual core processor is still preferable to a single.

 

TURION NEO X2
Fastest Model: 1.6 GHz (Turion Neo X2 L625)
Speed Range:1.6 GHz

The Turion Neo X2 processor is the dual core successor to the Athlon Neo X2. The Turion Neo X2 is just starting to show up and will be found in many value-priced ultraportables in 2010. Like the Athlon Neo and Athlon Neo X2, the dual core Turion Neo X2 is clocked at 1.6 GHz to help maintain low power consumption and improve heat dissipation. On that note, the Turion Neo X2 promises to offer much better battery life than the Athlon Neo. It’s also pretty obvious this processor is trying to replace the Intel Atom as the dominant player in the high-end netbook and value-priced ultraportable markets.

We’re already seeing this processor in the popular HP Pavilion dm3z, and there are rumors we’ll be seeing the Turion Neo X2 inside many more ultraportable laptops in the months to come.

TURION X2
Fastest Model: 2.2 GHz (Turion X2 RM-75)
Speed Range: 2 GHz ~ 2.2 GHz

The Turion X2s are basically Athlon X2s that run at slightly better voltage, but honestly it feels like splitting hairs even including them separately and I’m not sure why AMD bifurcated the line this way, but at least the next generation makes a bit more sense.

Everything said about the Athlon X2 applies to these, and clock-for-clock they should perform more or less identically.

TURION X2 ULTRA
Fastest Model: 2.5 GHz (Turion X2 Ultra ZM-88)
Speed Range: 2.1 GHz ~ 2.5 GHz

The chief advantage the Turion X2 Ultra has over the lesser Turions and Athlons is an increased amount of cache on the chip, which can improve performance clock-for-clock. If you’re going AMD, these are the best chips you can get.

Of course, the main problem is that you’ll have to spend up a little for a Turion X2 Ultra, and I honestly can’t give you a good reason why you’d do so. If you’re willing to spend up, the Core 2 Duos are going to be your best choice. It’s not always going to be this way, but right now, AMD just isn’t that competitive outside of price in notebooks, and with Core 2 Duo-based notebooks hanging out near $600 or better these days, that’s a razor thin place to try and compete.


ATHLON II

Fastest Model: 2.1 GHz (Athlon II M320)
Speed Range: 2 GHz ~ 2.1 GHz

AMD recently released a trio of new processors for the mobile market, derivatives of their somewhat more successful desktop Athlon II architecture with a lower HyperTransport speed and conservative core clocks. These mobile Athlon II chips sport 512KB of cache per core, and should be faster clock-for-clock than Athlon X2s at the same speed. Unfortunately, they still tend to consume the same amount of power as their predecessors, making them less than ideal for battery life.

TURION II
Fastest Model: 2.3 GHz (Turion II M520)
Speed Range: 2.2 GHz ~ 2.3 GHz

The Turion II is basically identical to the Athlon II, with the exception being the higher clock speed under the same power envelope. Why AMD opted to split this processor into two different brands the way they did is a mystery to me; they use the exact same silicon, so everything I said before applies.

TURION II ULTRA
Fastest Model: 2.6 GHz (Turion II Ultra M640)
Speed Range: 2.4 GHz ~ 2.6 GHz

You can see how the clock speeds linearly step up from model to model, but at least the Turion II Ultra brings something new to the table in the form of a full 1MB of cache per core and a higher HyperTransport speed, allowing the Turion II Ultra to perform slightly faster clock-for-clock than its other desktop Athlon II-based kin.

Yet at the end of the day, these three derivatives still have ground to make up against Intel’s entrenched Core 2 Duo line.

COMING SOON FROM INTEL

If AMD has any reprieve, it’s that it seems like Intel is largely going to be coasting on the success of the Core 2 Duo for at least a little while longer. Why wouldn’t they? The Core 2 Duo is a great chip, and the competition just isn’t there yet. The Nehalem architecture debuted in desktop Core i7 and i5 chips has proven to be a little more difficult to shoehorn into a notebook proper than the Penryn architecture modern Core 2 Duos are based on, and as a result, new hardware is still being forced to trickle into the market.

But time is running out for AMD. At some point in 2010, Intel will introduce mobile Core i5 and i7 chips codenamed Arrandale. These will be dual core chips based on the same architecture as the Clarksfield architecture the current mobile Core i7s stem from, but with a twist: they’re not quads because that extra chip space is being taken by an integrated graphics part built directly into the chip itself. Hopefully this will mean at least decent integrated graphics performance, but more likely much improved power consumption.

COMING SOON FROM AMD

Unfortunately, AMD doesn’t have anything new to report on the mobile front after the recently launched Athlon II and Turion II processors. Stuck playing catch-up on the desktop, AMD can at least compete on price there, where they’ve recently ducked a pretty swanky quad-core processor under the $100 mark.

On the mobile front, things are much sketchier. While the Radeon HD 3200 and integrated 4000 lines makes a compelling case for going AMD, it’s just not compelling enough, especially with Nvidia’s integrated GeForce 9400 running around on the Intel side. And Intel-based notebooks are damn cheap now, especially with their CULV platform running around. I wish I had better news to report for the AMD devoted. Maybe we’ll see an AMD mobile quad-core in 2010.

CONCLUSION

Although I feel like I’ve kind of given AMD the shaft in this CPU guide, both Intel and AMD have solid processor offerings in the mobile market. Despite the superiority of Intel’s top-of-the-line processors, AMD has a lot to offer the typical consumer this holiday season and in 2010. AMD’s integrated graphics are FAR more capable in every way than Intel’s and both AMD and Nvidia are making a concerted push towards employing the GPU more aggressively. Modern graphics hardware is remarkably complex and generalized and can lend itself well to specific tasks, with video encoding being the major starting point. AMD’s graphics also don’t have the driver issues Intel’s do, both in terms of accelerating high definition video decoding and just general gaming compatibility and performance.

What I would like to do is announce the premature death of the netbook. I remain reasonably certain the honeymoon is slowly ending in this market, though cell phone companies are now looking to foist them on us with wireless internet access plans. But AMD’s Athlon Neo and Turion Neo X2 processors and Intel’s CULV processors are vastly more attractive than the Atom. The really nice thing is that the more portable notebooks that used to cost a fortune (my old 1GHz Pentium M Sony TR2A was $2,200 new) have now been brought well within the realm of reasonable prices (less than $600), and I think that’s largely thanks to AMD pushing to open that market up with the Athlon Neo.

At the end of all this, my main recommendation for this holiday season is to go with AMD hardware if you’re on a budget, select Intel if you want the highest possible performance at a higher cost, and to avoid single core processors for even basic usage. While the average grandma may not need a robust Core i7, a dual core processor may at least keep her from shaking her head in frustration at her laptop while waiting for it to actually accomplish a task.



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