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The Big Picture
As noted in the previous article, the Phenom II appears to be decent processor. As of this writing it has now officially hit the market, and early indications are that it can be purchased at its MSRP, which is rare for a new chip but good for the Phenom II, as it helps the processor keep is competitive edge. With the Phenom II on the market, this launch series is nearing its end. But there is one area that needs to be touched on before the series can come to a close, and that is the area of total platform cost and value.
By total platform cost, I mean taking a look not only at the Phenom II, but the motherboard and RAM that a Phenom II uses in comparison to its competitors. These are important considerations, because a processor obviously must be slotted into a compatible motherboard and used with compatible RAM, and if the only motherboards and RAM that are available are too expensive, or perform poorly, or are otherwise significantly weak in any area, then the value of the processor itself will be damaged.
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The Advantage of AM2+
AMD has been using a fundamentally similar socket for some time now. Arriving approximately two and a half years ago, socket AM2 replaced Socket 939 and Socket 754 processors from AMD. Recently, Socket AM2 has been changed to Socket AM2+, which has added new features and improved the speed of AMD's HyperTransport technology, and in the future AMD will add socket AM3, which will add more features. There are some incompatibilities between AM2 and AM2+ processors, depending on your motherboard and the processor in question. The largest incompatibility seems to result from the high power draw of high-end Phenom and Phenom II processors, which exceeds what is supported by some older AM2 motherboards. It is likely that some other incompatibilities will result when AM3 debuts, as well. But fundamentally, all of these sockets use the same shape, the same number of pins, and the same basic features.
This gives AMD an advantage over Intel. Intel's Core i7 is brilliant, but it uses a new socket which is in no way compatible with previous socket LGA 775 processors, which would include the Core 2 Duos and Core 2 Quads. For the person who is considering a brand-new system, this is a dilemma. Buying an LGA 775 motherboard and an older processor will be relatively cheap, and will perform just as well as a Phenom II system with an AM2+ motherboard, but any future processor upgrades will require an entirely new motherboard, making it no simple upgrade. Buying Core i7 will give the user a good choice of upgrades in the future, but is extremely expensive.
AMD doesn't require a compromise. By building a new system around a Phenom II, the user will have both a processor that is a good value, and a motherboard that will provide a clear, if less than earth-shattering, set of upgrades until at least 2011, when the next major architecture change comes down the pipe from AMD.
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A Cost Comparison: Dragon, Core 2, and Core i7
To give a solid perspective of what the cost will be to buy a motherboard, processor, and four gigabytes of RAM (3 gigabytes in the case of the Core i7), we consider the following prices from Newegg. Prices are of 1/10/09.
Total Cost: $614.97
Core 2 Quad Q9400-based System
Total Cost: 409.96
Phenom II 940-based System
Total Cost: 399.97
These systems would be fairly equal in the performance, with the exception of tasks that make heavy use of all four cores, where you could expect the Core 920 system to be around 10-20% faster. Looking at them in this way, the AMD system is very attractive. It provides performance similar to the Core 2 Quad system in virtually all benchmarks, sometimes proving slightly faster or slower. But buying the Phenom II platform gives a clear path for future upgrades, while upgrading the Core 2 Quad platform's processor will be impossible. To do so, you'd be buying a new processor, motherboard, and RAM, which puts you well on the way to building a whole new computer.
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Phenom II Vs. Core i7
The fact that the Core 2 Quad has no upgrade path makes in a non-option for a new system in my eyes, although dramatic price cuts may change this opinion. The question then becomes one of how the Phenom II platform compares against the Core i7.
The answer to this question depends entirely on how you use your computer. In basic day-to-day tasks, and in gaming, the Phenom II system has proven itself in benchmarks to be as fast or sometimes faster than the Core i7 based system. Since the Core i7 based system costs over $200 dollars more than the Phenom II system, the choice is obvious. However, this conclusion has strings attached which echo previous comments made about the Core i7, both by myself and virtually every other review of the Core i7. While the Core i7 is very expensive, it is significantly faster at certain tasks, like image processing and 3D rendering. If that is your thing, then dropping the extra cash on the Core i7 makes sense.
Otherwise, the AMD's Phenom II is well positioned in the current market. Until the prices on Core i7 motherboards and DDR3 RAM come down, Intel is at a disadvantage. For most system builders, the Phenom II system is simply a better choice.
The Phenom II Part 4: Platform Comparisons
The new Phenom II is just around the corner. Will it be able to defeat the Core 2 Duo, or will it fail to meet expectations as did the original Phenom?