When AMD “launched” its quad-core Phenom toward the end of last year, our very own Brandon Bell was there to weigh in
. And if you’ve read that story, you already know he was not at all impressed with AMD’s market readiness. From a lack of hardware samples to a hardly-compelling scaling story, Phenom was not looking like the all-star we were expecting. At the time, Brandon concluded that Intel had the upper hand and would likely continue flexing its muscle to stay a step of AMD.
That was four months ago. Since then, AMD has slowly ramped up production on the Phenom. And while the company has yet to unveil a new model of its quad-core darling, it did recently let loose a “Black Edition” of the flagship Phenom 9600 running at 2.3 GHz with an unlocked clock multiplier. The word over at AMD is that we’ll see new speed bins of the Phenom soon, along with a fresh spin of the silicon that fixes the errata number 298—the TLB issue said to plague all of AMD’s quad-core chips.
Until then, the principal competition to Intel’s line of desktop CPUs remains the AMD Phenom at either 2.2 GHz or 2.3 GHz. If you’re an enthusiast with aspirations of adding value through overclocking, that Phenom 9600 Black Edition is probably your best bet. Now, I know what you’re thinking. The Phenom hasn’t even been out six months yet and it already has a reputation as a mediocre overclocker. Why would an enthusiast choose this chip for his gaming platform?
There are a couple of reasons, actually. First, you have the 790FX chipset, loaded with advanced functionality and the latest performance features. Then you have price—one of AMD’s only defenses against Intel’s superior performance position. The Black Edition Phenom sells for $251. Though there are certainly faster Intel offerings, they’re also priced to reflect that fact. An enthusiast chip with an unlocked clock multiplier is unheard of at such low cost.
OverDrive: Yet Another Reason
The Phenom 9600 Black Edition’s story gets even better when you add AMD’s OverDrive utility to it. Once upon a time, OverDrive was used to milk ATI’s graphics processors of extra performance. Today, the app gives power users the option of tweaking platform settings from within Windows. Gamers who might have otherwise avoided tooling around in their BIOSes can now alter performance from the perceived safety of an operating system.
Could this be the end of BIOS-based tweaking? In Brandon’s Phenom preview, he gave us a nice hard look at AMD’s polished user interface, which is unquestionably easier to look at than any of the BIOS screens I’ve seen. Personally, I’d be much more comfortable pulling bars from one side of a GUI to the other than manually keying in settings I hoped would take.
Right from the get-go, though, my expectations were tempered by representatives at AMD who warned that the Black Edition chip probably wouldn’t go much further than a couple hundred megahertz beyond its stock 2.3 GHz. Fair enough. I had a new CPU in-hand, a very sexy motherboard from Gigabyte with a great looking BIOS, and AMD’s OverDrive utility for the sake of comparison. I was on a mission to dig deep into the chip’s architecture, take preliminary performance numbers, and then try to determine if AMD’s beta software tool had the chops to push overclocking into the realm of Windows.