Summary: Packing two processing cores, 6MB of L3 cache, an unlocked multiplier, and a 3.1GHz clock speed, AMD's Phenom II X2 550 Black is targeted towards enthusiasts looking to OC. Its $102 price tag is inexpensive too. But is it a worthy competitor to Core 2 Duo? AMD's also unleashing a new Athlon II CPU today. See how both new AMD CPUs perform against the competition from Intel inside!
Now AMD is looking to shore up the bottom of their CPU lineup, introducing 45-nm parts with sub-$100 price tags. Launching today is AMDís first Athlon II CPU, the Athlon II X2 250, and AMDís first dual-core Phenom II part, the Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition.
The Athlon II X2 250 is AMDís first in a wave of soon to be released Athlon II parts that are designed to take the value/mainstream mantle from todayís current Athlon X2 CPUs, many of which are increasingly based on AMDís K10 Kuma core. Considering their Phenom roots, adapting these CPUs for the mainstream and value segment isnít a very good way to build profits for AMD. The new Athlon II CPUs are purpose built, native 45-nm designs. This helps to keep die size nice and small for maximum profits for AMD.
The Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition is AMDís latest processor for their high-end Dragon platform targeted towards enthusiasts. Think of it as the gamerís choice from AMD when it comes to dual-core processing. As a Black Edition, the chip sports an unlocked clock multiplier for maximum flexibility when OCíing, and thanks to its Agena-based roots, the chip is based on the exact same core used in more expensive quad and triple-core Phenom II processors, only AMD activates two cores. AMD even equips the processor with the full 6MB of L3 cache found on their flagship Phenom II X4 955. Priced at $102, the chip undercuts many of Intelís popular dual-core Core 2 offerings by tens of dollars too.
If they keep up this pace, the 45-nm transition will be AMDís fastest process ramp in the companyís history by our estimation.
Of course, the 45-nm process isnít just good news for AMDís bottom line. Besides sporting a smaller die and reduced power consumption, enthusiasts love the new process because AMDís baked in improvements designed to improve the CPUís frequency headroom. Weíve found that these chips scale further than anything AMDís ever produced. In other words, AMDís newest 45-nm chips overclock like mad.
With just two cores, theoretically AMDís latest processors should scale even further. Intelís dual-core processors scale dramatically higher than their quad-core processors. Does the same hold true for AMD? Letís find out!
The Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition
While quad-core CPUs have been on the market for years now, the software industry has been slow to adapt to the multithreaded computing world enabled by the latest four core processors. Nowhere is this statement more true than in the gaming industry. As hard as AMD and Intel have worked with game developers to enable more multithreaded games, the vast majority of games on the market today are at best only dual-threaded.
Athlon II X2 250
Launching alongside the new Phenom II X2 550 is AMDís first Athlon II CPU, the Athlon II X2 250. The Athlon II X2 250 features 256KB of L1 cache (64K instruction + 64K data per core) and 1MB of L2 cache per core (2MB total per processor), just like AMD's old Windsor cores. AMDís 65-nm Athlon X2 CPUs based on their Brisbane core featured just 512KB of L2 per core for a grand total of 1MB of L2 cache.
Despite the larger cache, die size is pretty similar to Brisbane 118 mm2, with the chip sporting a die size of 117.5m2 according to AMD. This is obviously due thanks to the chipís new 45-nm manufacturing process. Transistor count is 234 million transistors.
Compared to the Athlon X2 7850, AMDís previous flagship X2 part, the Athlon II X2 250 runs 200MHz faster at an even 3.0GHz, and sports a 2.0GHz HyperTransport link (versus 1.8GHz). The Athlon II X2 250 does lose the X2 7850ís 2MB L3 cache, but between the higher clock speed and larger L2 cache AMD expects the chip to perform better while running cooler. Max TDP is just 65W.
But these arenít the only new CPUs on tap from AMD today. The company is also launching new triple and quad-core CPUsÖ
The Phenom II X4 905e is AMDís first energy efficient Phenom II quad-core processor. Clocked at 2.5GHz, the chip ships with 512KB of L1 cache, 2MB of L2 cache (512KB of L2 cache per core), and the full 6MB of L3 cache found on AMDís flagship Phenom II processors. Max TDP comes in at just 65W according to AMD. The chip is priced at $195.
For the triple-core crowd, AMD offers the Phenom II X3 705e. Like the 905e, the Phenom II X3 705 runs at 2.5GHz and sports the full 6MB of L3 cache found on faster Phenom II processors. AMD also lists a 65W TDP for this processor, which will be priced at $125.
AMD says that theyíre stocking vendors with all of todayís newly announced processors as we speak. AMD expects retail availability within one week from today.
Picking a platform for testing: Gigabyteís GA-MA770-UD3
As anyone who has shopped the AM3 market can tell you, thereís a dearth of inexpensive motherboard options out there. Most of the motherboards that have actually hit retail shelves so far are high-end $150+ 790FX motherboards. There are also a handful of 790GX motherboards out there as well, but theyíre still selling for well over $100: we doubt many enthusiasts would be willing to spend $110+ or more on a motherboard to pair with their $102 Phenom II X2 550 or $87 Athlon II X2 250. It just doesnít make sense to spend more money on your motherboard than your CPU, when itís the CPU thatís going to play a bigger role in overall performance.
With its unlocked clock multiplier, the CPU we were most interested in testing was AMDís Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition. We were eager to see if we could get the chip to run 4.0GHz or more with complete stability.
So what speed did we settle on? 3.829GHz (18.5x207). Still not a bad OC, but considering where weíd been, it was pretty disappointing to say the least.
We donít have a dramatic overclocking tale for the Athlon II X2 250 as we were forced to rely on its stock voltage when OCíing. In addition, with its fixed multiplier, youíre forced to rely on the HyperTransport interface alone, which as any experienced AMD OCíer can tell you, doesnít scale like the FSB used on Intelís Core 2 Quad CPUs. Ultimately we maxed out at 3.39GHz (15.0x226).
Here we think we were held back a little by voltage, but obviously the CPU isnít going to OC like a processor with an unlocked multiplier will. BIOS updates to the GA-MA770-UD3 will hopefully bring more voltage options to Athlon II users in the future.
Intel Core 2 Duo E7400
Intel Pentium E6300
ASUS P5Q3 Deluxe (P45)
4GB (4x1GB) OCZ DDR3 PC3-16000 Platinum @1066MHz
AMD Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition
AMD Phenom II X4 810
AMD Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition
AMD Athlon II X2 250
Gigabyte GA-MA770-UD3 (770)
4GB (2x2GB) Corsair CM3X2G1600C9DHX @1066MHz
AMD Athlon X2 6000+
ASUS M3A78T (790GX)
4GB (4x1GB) OCZ DDR2 PC2-8500 Platinum @1066MHz
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 295
500GB Western Digital Caviar SE16
Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit w/Service Pack 1
Valve Particle Simulation Benchmark
World In Conflict Ė Direct3D
Far Cry 2 Ė Direct3D
Crysis Ė Direct3D
Lost Planet Ė Direct3D
Armed with the same basic core used on AMDís flagship Phenom II CPUs, AMD equips the Phenom II X2 550 Black with a very solid foundation to build on. From there its dual processing cores are clocked at 3.1GHz Ė just 100MHz shy of AMDís fastest Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition processor. Again, this is another area where AMD couldíve made compromises, but didnít.
All this adds up to AMDís most powerful dual-core processor ever. In fact, the chip is competitive with AMDís more powerful Phenom II X3 720 in some cases. Itís clocked 300MHz faster than the X3 720, allowing it to outrun the triple-core processor in benchmarks focused on sheer clock speed over the number of processing cores. Examples of this include Crysis and MP3 encoding with LAME. Even in multithreaded titles like World In Conflict and Far Cry 2 though the Phenom II X2 550 is performance competitive, running well within 10% of the triple-core AMD processor while costing 30% less. Lost Planet is the only clear cut title that gives the advantage to the Phenom II X3, and keep in mind here that weíre running one very specific benchmark sequence (the cave demo) in order to get these results. Most of the game isnít skewed so overwhelmingly towards multithreading.
Against Intelís Core 2 Duo E7400, the Phenom II X2 550 Black continues to excel. It outperformed the Intel processor in Lost Planet, Far Cry 2, and Crysis, falling behind only in World in Conflict testing. In our encoding/rendering tests, the results tilt in Intelís favor, with the Intel CPU winning in Valveís particle simulation benchmark, MP3 encoding, and DivX testing with VirtualDub once SSE4 is enabled. Only in Cinebench did the Phenom II X2 550 come out ahead, and there itís by a slim margin of just 2%.
In terms of pricing though, the Phenom II X2 550 undercuts Intelís Core 2 Duo E7400 by nearly $20, which in our opinion is enough to vault it ahead of the Intel CPU overall.
On the lower end of the dual-core spectrum, AMDís Athlon II X2 250 faces off against the recently released Pentium E6300. In gaming tests, the Pentium E6300 narrowly loses to the AMD processor in Far Cry 2 at 800x600, but pulls even with the processor at higher resolutions. The E6300 also loses in Lost Planet, although itís a narrow loss. The Pentium processor easily outruns the Athlon II in Crysis and WiC.
The E6300 and Athlon II X2 250 are pretty neck-and-neck in our media encoding and rendering tests, with the CPUs trading wins or finishing in a dead heat in the various apps we tested. The Athlon II CPU outran the E6300 by 9% in Valveís particle simulation benchmark, but finished about 18% slower than the Intel processor in MP3 encoding tests. Testing in VirtualDub and Cinebench was basically tied, the chips are separated by less than 1% in Cinebench, while the AMD processor finished 9 seconds faster in VirtualDub, just outside the margin of error in this test.
With pricing so similar, itís probably going to come down to personal preference for most consumers here, although we wouldnít be surprised if overclocking favored the Intel processor (time for an overclocking showdown amongst these CPUs perhaps?).
AMDís rapidly trickling down 45-nm technology from the top to the bottom of their CPU lineup. As todayís benchmarks show, AMDís latest dual-core offerings are seriously competitive with the best Intel has to offer in this segment of the market. Enthusiasts are going to love the overclocking potential found in the Phenom II X2 550, and thanks to its Phenom II roots (namely its 6MB L3 cache), itís a serious performer for about $100. Itís the best value overall in this segment of the CPU market today in our opinion.
If youíre absolutely positively sure you canít scrape up the extra $15 to splurge on a Phenom II X2 550, the Athlon II X2 250 is a nice consolation prize, but here Intelís Pentium E6300 is very competitive with AMD. Again, for enthusiasts itís probably going to come down to OCíing, and here we have a feeling Intelís probably got the edge on AMD, but we just may have to revisit this topic with an OCíing showdown in the near futureÖ
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