||AMD Phenom X4 9850 Black Edition Review
March 26, 2008 Chris Crazipper Angelini
Summary: With its 2.5GHz clock speed, B3 stepping, unlocked multiplier, and aggressive pricing, AMD is catering the Phenom X4 9850 to enthusiasts looking to upgrade to quad-core without maxing out the credit card. But does the formula work? Let's find out!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 14 )|
I’ve been writing about technology for 10 years now, and as a member of the press, I find that it’s incredibly difficult to always “keep your mind right” when it comes to passing judgment over the hardware that people buy. Anyone who does this job and says otherwise is lying.
Showdowns between AMD and Intel are especially difficult to officiate because the two companies are continually adjusting their price tags according to relative performance. I can tell you that Intel’s fastest chip will smoke AMD’s best effort, but the $800 discrepancy is a big enough turn-off to keep enthusiasts from automatically jumping on Intel’s flagship. However, once you start comparing one company’s $250 quad-core chip against the other’s, decisions get a lot trickier. After all, in a bid to make some money and still remain competitive, both organizations are going to give you a very similar experience.
But at the end of the day, you’re still faced with a choice. Your system is getting old. The latest games just don’t look the way you know they should. So you want to build a new machine with the best processor, platform, memory, and graphics subsystems your money can buy. Make the call: AMD or Intel?
Up until now, at that $250 price point, I would have steered friends, family, and readers toward the Intel solution. I’m a big advocate of the platform, and when I can put an Intel processor on a motherboard with an Intel chipset, things just seem to work. The 45m quad-core Yorkfields and dual-core Wolfdales are started to appear, and they’re shaping up to be highly scalable chips. Not helping the situation is AMD’s limited quad-core lineup. Based on a B2 stepping sullied by an errata that, when patched, absolutely hammers performance, the Phenom wasn’t altogether attractive.
AMD’s counter-point is that today’s Phenom is a drop-in upgrade for the folks out there already on AM2 motherboards. In addition, the least expensive Phenom costs less than the least expensive Core 2 Quad. So, if you’re on a strict budget or simply upgrading an older machine, Phenom makes sense. If that’s the case, you’re probably not all that concerned with how AMD’s quad-core solution stacks up to Intel’s competing chips anyway.
Of course, AMD has the platform story on its side now. In fact, its 790FX chipset is one of the most feature-complete enthusiast foundations selling today. What the company needs is a hardware fix for its cache issue and more megahertz. And that’s exactly what the B3 stepping brings to AMD’s Phenom.
We laid it out in our last Phenom story and I’ll reiterate here: though you’ll find plenty of editorial content online explaining what the TLB erratum is and how it’s triggered, there’s a good chance you’d never encounter it if you bought a Phenom that centered on AMD’s B2 stepping. With that said, the prospect of data corruption is real enough that most motherboard vendors have issued BIOS updates with a selectable workaround. The patch greatly increases memory latency and significantly impacts Phenom’s performance.
Stepping B3 takes a different approach to the problem, which doesn’t affect performance, and the erratum is sidestepped entirely.
Representatives at AMD insist that the purpose of B3 is to fix the cache bug, so don’t go assuming it was also trying to boost Phenom’s scalability this time around. The company emphatically insists that what you see is what you get when it comes to overclocking the quad-core processor. And more importantly, you still void your warranty. Considering the apparent scalability of Intel’s dual-core Wolfdale chips (we took our 3.16 GHz sample past 4 GHz), we’re really hoping that AMD can build some more headroom into the architecture.
Overclocking is neither here nor there, though. We asked for a TLB fix and more clock speed. B3 delivers on that first wish.
| Meet the Fitties||Page:: ( 2 / 14 )|
Retiring the 00s
Oh, right. And AMD is bringing back the X-factor, too. Just as Athlon X2 chips sport two processing cores, so too do the X4 models boast a quartet of processing resources. The model names are starting to get longer. But fortunately, it should be easy enough to remember that all Phenom model numbers ending in 50 are based on AMD’s B3 stepping and X4s have four cores. It’ll make a lot more sense once the tri-core X3s start hitting the market. For now, they’re going to be OEM-only parts. Once they make their way into the channel, AMD’s pricing structure should solidify on those parts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go brush my teeth after being reminded of BMW’s hideous SUV.
A Wish, Granted
In addition to a new stepping and a revised naming convention, AMD is unveiling a pair of fresh speed bins in the channel to help nudge Phenom forward in its fight against Intel’s Core 2 Quad.
The Phenom X4 9850 Black Edition runs at 2.5 GHz out of the box. It naturally features an unlocked clock multiplier to help make overclocking easier. The higher frequency calls for a little more voltage (1.2-1.3V), which in turn causes power consumption to go up as well. The Phenom 9600 was a 95W part. The X4 9850 sports a 125W max TDP, as does the X4 9750. Don’t worry though; AMD’s reference heatsink still seems to do the trick for cooling.
Everything else about the processors’ architecture remains the same. The chips boast 64KB of instruction and 64KB of data L1 cache per core (512KB total per Phenom die) and 512KB of L2 per core, totaling 2MB per processor. A 2MB L3 cache is shared by all four cores. AMD manufacturers these Phenoms, like those before, on its 65nm SOI node over at Fab 36 in Dresden. They consist of somewhere around 450 million transistors on a die roughly 285 square millimeters.
The Phenom’s integrated memory controller now consists of two 64-bit channels that can either be ganged together in a 128-bit configuration or operated independently. Officially, the controller supports unregistered DIMMs running at speeds as high as DDR2-1066, but we’ve had rotten luck getting either of two 790FX boards running stably with DDR2-1066 memory installed. Until we figure out what’s going on there, we’ll take rock-solid DDR2-800 modules, thank you.
We did discover one little surprise upon firing the Phenom X4 9780 up for the first time. Mainly, the processor’s memory controller and HyperTransport link clocks have increased from 1.8 GHz to 2 GHz, yielding a small total processor bandwidth boost to 33.1 GBps. On an enthusiast platform with discrete graphics, the difference won’t be perceptible. However, the memory bandwidth increase might help a 780G-based board with an integrated graphics solution.
| Overclocking, Pricing, and System Setup||Page:: ( 3 / 14 )|
Overclocking the 9850 Black Edtion
Before we received our Phenom X4 9850 sample, we were made to understand that the new stepping was not intended to stretch the chip’s scalability and that, if anything, it’d be interesting to see how far the processor would overclock.
With that news, we weren’t hoping for much since the furthest our Phenom 9600 Black Edition would go was 2.5 GHz—the stock clock on AMD’s 9850. Nevertheless, we fired up a newer board to our labs, Gigabyte’s MA790FX-DQ6, and started tweaking around with multiplier settings. Conspicuously missing, by the way, was the option disable the TLB patch implemented in Gigabyte’s latest BIOS files.
We shot first for 2.7 GHz—a 200 MHz overclock, and exactly what we were able to bilk out of the 9600. The system fired up without a problem and ran through a complete set of benchmarks stably. We added some more voltage, shot for 2.8 GHz and again saw success. From there, 2.9 GHz just wasn’t happening. Even still, a 300 MHz bump is respectable.
As mentioned at the start of this piece, AMD and Intel are constantly jockeying for position when it comes to relative performance and pricing. When we looked at the Phenom 9600 Black Edition, the chip was listed at $250 and it underperformed Intel’s similarly priced Core 2 Quad Q6600 based on the Kentsfield core.
Now, the 9600 is being bested by AMD’s new Phenom X4 9750 at a $215 price point. The X4 9850 Black Edition (2.5 GHz) is even less expensive than the 9600 used to be at a $235 price point. If you’re willing to drop down to 2.2 GHz, the door to quad-core is open at under $200 with the 9550.
|X3s and X4s|
|Processor||Speed||Cores||Power||Price in 1KU|
|Phenom X4 9850||2.5 GHz||4||125W||$235|
|Phenom X4 9750||2.4 GHz||4||125W||$215|
|Phenom X4 9650||2.3 GHz||4||95W|
|Phenom X4 9550||2.2 GHz||4||95W||$195|
|Phenom X3 8600||2.3 GHz||3||95W||~$175|
|Phenom X3 8400||2.1 GHz||3||95W||~$150|
|Phenom X4 9100e||1.8 GHz||4||65W||~$200|
|Note that the X4 9650/9100e and X3 8600/8400 will be OEM-only parts at launch|
Suddenly, AMD’s position versus Intel’s comparably-priced chips looks much better. You’ll still find faster chips at the high-end of Intel’s lineup. However, knowing what we know about how the Phenom 9600 performed at 2.3 GHz, enthusiasts in the market between $200 and $300 are going to be much more impressed by a cheaper Phenom at 2.5 GHz.
One last thing—notice in the table above that the X4 9100e, X3 8600, and X3 8400 don’t bear the xx50 suffix. They’re still B2 silicon, so keep that in mind as you plan an upgrade path (or consider an inexpensive home system). It’s worth stepping up to an X4 9550 for less than $200.
AMD Phenom 9850 Black Edition (2.5 GHz)
AMD Phenom 9600 Black Edition (2.3 GHz)
AMD Phenom 9500 (2.2 GHz)
Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 (2.4 GHz)
Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 (3.16 GHz)
Gigabyte MA790FX-DQ6 Motherboard
ASUS P5E-VM HDMI Motherboard
2GB OCZ Technology DDR2-1066 CAS5 Memory (2x1GB)
Gigabyte GV-RX387512H Radeon HD 3870 512MB
Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 1TB SATA 3 Gbps Hard Drive
Windows Vista x32, current as of March 13th, 2008 with Windows Update
Desktop resolution 1600x1200, 32-bit color, 85Hz refresh
We disable Vista’s UAC and generate an image using Norton Ghost 11 to create the same basic benchmark platform for each test bed. The image is frozen with the latest Windows Updates and deployed to each system. The appropriate drivers are then loaded to the machines.
Unreal Tournament III
Lost Planet: Extreme Condition
Half-Life 2: Episode 2
Company of Heroes
Call of Duty 4
Windows Media Encoder
| 3DMark06||Page:: ( 4 / 14 )|
We’ve already seen how this synthetic test seems to favor an Intel platform. But this time around, AMD’s Phenom 9850 Black Edition at its standard 2.5 GHz is able to claim a victory in the overall score. Overclocked to 2.8 GHz, it’s the faster choice in the CPU test, too.
Notice we’ve also added Intel’s Core 2 Duo E8500 to the benchmark chart. The E8500 is based on the company’s new 45nm Wolfdale core. In applications not optimized for threading, we’d expect the higher-frequency dual-core chip show better numbers, especially when you add in the effects of a larger cache. 3DMark is thread-aware, though, so you see the Core 2 Quad chip eke out a victory in the overall metric and a more substantial victory in the direct processor comparison.
| Unreal Tournament III||Page:: ( 5 / 14 )|
Unreal Tournament III
We used the botmatch technique for benchmarking Unreal Tournament, populating our map with 24 characters, 12 to a side.
At 800x600, the large cache and frequency advantage of the dual-core E8500 gives it a tremendous lead over all of the other CPUs. That gap tapers off a bit at 1280x1024, as both Intel processors match pace. As you look at 1600x1200, the quad-core Q6600 takes the lead, followed by the E8500.
AMD’s Phenoms trail at each step of the way. At 1600x1200, however, the difference isn’t as pronounced. Overall, the X4 9850 won’t buy you much more than the older Phenom 9600 at the higher resolutions.
| Crysis||Page:: ( 6 / 14 )|
We ditched the baked benchmarks for this test, recorded our own timedemo, and used it instead. Unfortunately, Crysis turns off the AI when you’re playing back demos, so you can expect actual game play to better tax these chips.
Again, the dual-core E8500 establishes a commanding lead at 800x600, which all but disappears once you hit 1280x1024 and then 1600x1200 with the eye candy cranked up. Because Crysis is so gosh-darned graphically intensive, you can expect AMD’s Phenom and Intel’s Core 2 to deliver a similar experience.
| Lost Planet||Page:: ( 7 / 14 )|
Lost Planet: Extreme Condition
We used all of the DirectX 10 settings for our Lost Planet testing. Apparently, that’s a recipe for graphics-bound game play, even at 800x600. If you’re a fan of this title, just keep throwing more powerful video cards at the game until you’re running at the settings you want. Our Radeon HD 3870 just isn’t enough for fluid frame rates at 1600x1200 with 4x anti-aliasing and 8x anisotropic filtering turned on.
| Half-Life 2||Page:: ( 8 / 14 )|
Half-Life 2: Episode 2
Here’s another example of the Core 2 architecture flexing its muscle at lower resolutions, only to sync up with competing platforms as an increasing emphasis is placed on 3D performance. At 1280x1024, the Core 2 Duo E8500 still has a slight advantage. But when you switch over to 1600x1200, every single one of our test configurations cranked out 60 frames. Fortunately, that’s enough for you to enjoy Half-Life 2: Episode 2 with anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering turned on.
| Company of Heroes||Page:: ( 9 / 14 )|
Company of Heroes
Another title adapted for DirectX 10 support with a serious emphasis on graphics performance. From one chip to the next, you won’t notice much difference running Company of Heroes. If anything, you’ll want to add a second Radeon card for CrossFire support or pick up an SLI setup.
| Call of Duty 4||Page:: ( 10 / 14 )|
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
We concluded that Call of Duty 4 was limited by our Radeon HD 3870 back when we tested AMD’s Phenom 9600 and the same applies here as we run the Phenom X4 9850 through its paces. From 800x600 to 1280x1024 to 1600x1200 with the eye candy cranked, there’s not much wiggle room. Actually, that’s not entirely true. If you want to really get picky about it, the Core 2 Duo E8500 steps out in front of the pack and manages to keep one foot in front of the other processors at each successively higher resolution.
| PCMark Vantage||Page:: ( 11 / 14 )|
PCMark Vantage is the latest synthetic system metric from Futuremark based on a number of real-world workloads. The benchmark is thread-aware and comprised of several test suites that measure performance under Windows Vista.
If you’re looking at the overall PCMarks score, Intel’s quad-core Q6600 puts down the highest number, followed by the E8500. AMD’s Phenoms aren’t far behind, though. You see the same general theme carry through the other benchmark suites with the exception of TV and Movies, where the new Phenom X4 9850 overclocked yields top marks.
| Windows Media Encoder 9||Page:: ( 12 / 14 )|
Windows Media Encoder 9
While we’re all about gaming, it’s no secret that the latest titles stifle most attempts to compare processors, especially at the resolutions at which enthusiasts actually play. At 1600x1200, most folks are usually best off spending more money on the fastest video card they can buy.
Power users do more than game, though. Audio and video encoding are much better measures of processor performance. The encoder .dll used in Windows Media Encoder 9 is optimized for up to four threads, making it a great test of the dual- and quad-core chips on the bench.
AMD’s Phenom X4 9850 performs superbly here, matching the encoding time of Intel’s Core 2 Quad Q6600 at a lower price. Overclocking the chip further improves the Phenom’s encoding time by six seconds.
Surprisingly, the dual-core Core 2 Duo E8500 overcomes its 2-core disadvantage and beats the entire lineup of quad-core chips, finishing up with our high-def sample of Terminator 2 in 91 seconds.
| Ballistics Report: Phenom X4 9850 Black Edition||Page:: ( 13 / 14 )|
OverDrive: We went into more depth on OverDrive in our Phenom 9600 Black Edition coverage, but the software-based tweaking app is receiving even more attention from AMD. In the latest version, you’ll find support for AMD’s 780G chipset (manual adjustments for the IGP clock speed), enhancements to the AutoClock feature, which can now take advantage of unlocked multipliers, and a handful of bugfixes.
790FX: I said it at the beginning of this story—I’m a sucker for complete platforms able to work better as a collection of components from one vendor able to validate and support the whole package. AMD’s 790FX is the platform that Phenom needs.
Unlocked Multiplier: We had marginal success tuning the Phenom 9600 Black Edition using the reference clock. Because the Phenom has separate multipliers for the memory controller, HyperTransport bus, and processing cores, we never ran into a devastating bottleneck that couldn’t be re-tuned. But these Black Edition parts sport unclocked CPU multipliers, so when it came to tweaking the Phenom X4 9850, it was so much easier to get an extra 300 MHz by simply keying in the 14x.
Price: In addition to fixing the TLB erratum and boosting operating frequencies, AMD also dropped the price on its entire line of Phenom chips. Now the flagship X4 9850 is, in many situations, faster than Intel’s Core 2 Quad Q6600, complemented by a more attractive platform, and less expensive.
Power: In boosting the Phenom’s clock speed, AMD was forced to increase the chip’s nominal voltage, translating into higher power consumption numbers. The Phenom X4 9850 now sits at a max TDP of 125 watts.
Not the Fastest: Relative to Intel’s Core 2 Quad Q6600 and Core 2 Duo E8500, the Phenom X4 9850 readily handles business. Intel does have faster options available though, for the power users craving extra oomph and willing to pay for it.
| Final Verdict||Page:: ( 14 / 14 )|
AMD Phenom X4 9850 Black Edition
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