With surprisingly little fan-fare, the new Phenom II has arrived. Can it compete with Intel's Core 2 Quad, let alone the i7s?
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A Moment Of Truth
The lead-up to the Phenom II has been a surprisingly quiet one. Before Core i7 arrived, there were multiple in-depth previews, exhaustive articles covering Intel's new architecture, and reviews of all the major X58 motherboards. The Phenom II, on the other hand, has received only a few light nods and an occasional smile. This has made solid predictions about the Phenom II's performance difficult. But now the processor is coming to market, and early-bird reviews are up. This means we can finally see if AMD's newest processor can pack the punch needed to wallop Intel's Core 2 Quads, or if it will yet again find itself KO'ed by Intel's superior clock-for-clock performance.
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The Comeback Kids
For some time, rumors have said that AMD would launch Phenom II with two processors. Now that review samples have been tested, we can see all the rumors were absolutely correct. AMD has introduced just two new Phenom II processors for starters, the first being the Phenom II X4 920 running at 2.8 Ghz, the second being the Phenom II X4 940 running at 3 Ghz. These two processors probably represent the highest end Phenom II processors we'll see for some time. A clock speed of 3Ghz is very fast for a quad-core, and it is unlikely that AMD will ever released a Phenom II-derived product which reaches much beyond that mark. For comparison to Intel's Core 2 Quads, the Phenom II 920 is priced to compete with the Core 2 Quad Q9300, and the Phenom II 940 is priced to compete with the Q9400.
But enough teasing; are these processors competitive? The short answer is - Yes. For now.
Obviously, AMD is not trying to compete with Intel's new Core i7, nor is it trying to outrun the fastest Intel Core 2 Quads. AMD has never made claims that their new chips would defeat all challengers, but rather has priced them competitively in the upper-mid range from the start. In comparison to Core 2 Quads, AMD's new Phenom II often comes very close to, and sometimes defeats, Intel's older architecture. In fact, the Phenom II 940 actually manages to match Intel's far more expensive Core 2 Quad 9550 in some scenarios, such as in x264 HD Benchmarks. The Phenom II also appears to be doing very well in gaming benchmarks, a surprising but important change. After all, AMD already makes great video cards. Introducing a CPU which receives good marks in gaming will make systems combing AMDCPUs, GPUs, and motherboards (a platform AMD is calling Dragon) very attractive.
Although the Phenom II may not be the Core i7 killer that a few optimistic fans may have hoped for, it is still a respectable contender well worth a look. The fact that it uses the same socket as previous AMD processors, and that AMD appears to have plans to stretch this socket into 2011, is a major advantage. While Intel's new Core i7 is cutting edge, it also forces anyone buying into the new technology to completely renovate their computer. Those who bought into AM2+ when the Phenom first rolled around, on the other hand, can simply put in a new processor.
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Not In The Clear Yet
Things are looking good for the Phenom II so far. The ability to present a better value than the products it was targeted to compete against means that the Phenom II's launch has met its goal. It has introduced a new, competitive product which can finally give people a reason to buy AMD rather than Intel. As newer, cheaper, less powerful Phenom IIs begin to trickle down, AMD's new processor may become the CPU of choice for those looking for a mid-range or low-end processor.
That said, the fact that the Phenom II is competing with Core 2 Quads poses an unavoidable problem. The Core 2 Quad is a two-year-old architecture, soon to be replaced completely by the faster Core i7 processors. Since AMD's plans don't include a major architecture revision until sometime in 2011, the Phenom II and, perhaps, a future Phenom III will likely be all the new products from AMD we'll see until that revision. In other words, it isn't likely to get much better than this. Considering how far away AMD is from the performance of the Core i7 processors in some benchmarks, AMD is going to be forced to compete on price, meaning less profit for the company.
And competing on price is a minefield in other ways, because the products that AMD intends to compete with are older models which Intel could easily drop prices on. Coming to the end of their lifespan in the Intel lineup, Intel will likely be seeking to get rid of its stock of old processors. This may or may not pan out - it is notable, after all, that you'll still find old E4600 Core 2 Duos on Newegg selling for more than the much newer and faster Wolfdale Core 2 Duo processors. However, as the situation currently stands, AMD's Phenom II is at the mercy of Intel's pricing.
But I don't want to appear to negative. As the next article in the series will show, there are some good reasons to buy not only a Phenom II, but also a full AMD-based "Dragon" system, with CPU, GPU, and Mobo made by the same company. AMD also has a few other tricks that will increase its appeal to enthusiasts.