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Best High-End Processors: Published March 2009

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 5/24/2011

How times change. Only a few months ago, Intel had the performance edge at nearly every price point. Now, AMD has debuted its new Phenom II processors. But are these new offerings able to fight back against Intel, or are they as forgettable as AMD's original Phenoms?

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    Return Of Competition

    The early months of 2009 have seen some significant developments in the CPU market, most of which have been the responsibility of AMD. For the first time in years, AMD has been able to debut a processor that is highly competitive with Intel in the mid-range market. Yes, Intel still dominates high-end, high-price computers withs its Core i7 trio. But as fast as those processors are, the line-up has yet to be fully fleshed out.

    Of course, the news that AMD's new Phenom II processors are competitive with Intel's processors is good for consumers, and has had an effect. Take the time to browse the three processors below, and you'll notice that none of them have less than three cores. Since the debut of quad-core processors, the common enthusiast wisdom has been that the price premium required to step up beyond a dual-core processor wasn't worthwhile. But now that price premium is beginning to disappear, and as a result, dual cores are finally starting to look out of date.

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    AMD Phenom II X3 720 2.8Ghz Processor Black Edition

    AMD X3 720 - Surprise! It's awesome! Just a month after AMD released the first wave of Phenom II processors, it unleashed several new offerings, including its first tri-core Phenom II processor - the X3 720. Back in the days of Phenom, the X3 series was a bit of a dud. The original Phenom didn't have the pure speed to keep up with dual-core Intel processors, and it did only slightly better when running programs that knew how to use multiple cores. But things have changed.

    In fact, the X3 720 has several advantages over both Phenom Is and Core 2 Duos, including DDR3 support, support for higher memory clock speeds, and a substantial amount of L3 cache for a processor in its price range. Oh, and it's a Black Edition processor, which means that overclocking it is so easy your grandmother could do it.

    The result is a processor that comes out with all guns blazing. With a clock speed of 2.8Ghz and three cores, the X3 720 eliminates the need to think about old favorites like the Intel Core 2 Duo E8400. The X3 720's performance is roughly on par with, and in some cases better than, the Core 2 Duo E8400. The only place that the X3 720 seems to fall down is in programs that require both a lot of speed and a lot of cores. But that is hardly a knock against it, because the X3 720 is only $144 dollars - and compared to other processors in that price range, it is untouchable, no matter what benchmark you throw at it.

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    Intel Core 2 Quad 9400 2.66Ghz

    This was a tough call. When AMD released the X4 940 and 920, it seemed clear that AMD's processors provided a better value than anything in Intel's Core 2 Quad line-up. Intel responded quickly, however, slashing prices across the Core 2 Quad line by significant amounts. Once upon a time, the Core 2 Quad 9400 was a mid-$300 dollar processor. But now it is only $229.99.

    Boring. But Good. As a result, the Core 2 Quad 9400 gets a nod. It is a nod that comes with a few reservations, the largest being that the value in the processor comes exclusively from its placement in the market, and not from any interesting features, like the X3 720's unlocked multiplier. If you are looking at processors under $200 dollars, it is very likely that you can't make a better choice than a Phenom II.

    On the other hand, an extra $60 lands you a Core i7 - which nudges out any of the Core 2 Quads. But you also have to factor in the extra costs of the X58 Platform. As a result, the Q9400 wins nearly by default, as it fells all contenders in this price range, including AMD's new quad-core Phenom IIs, which are competitive but not-just-quite good enough to dislodge an Intel recommendation.

    Overall, this may seem a negative recommendation - so allow me to lighten the tone. If you're looking for a quad right now, and you want to keep your budget as close to $200 dollars as possible, you should blow the extra $30 and buy this one, without a doubt. The cheaper quad-cores, from both Intel and AMD, are starved for speed. They are too slow for intensive applications that don't make good use of multiple threads (gamers, I'm looking at you).

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    Intel Core i7 920 2.66Ghz

    Back For The Second Season This is the Intel's Core i7 920's encore performance - the processor made it onto the Holiday 2008 edition of the High-Performance CPU processor list. Back then, it had just recently debuted - but it didn't take more than a cursory glance at any benchmark to realize it made most of Intel's Core 2 Quads pointless. It trounced them completely, and back then, it was priced lower than many of them. Of course, the savings on the processor was made up for by the price of Core i7 Motherboards and DDR3 RAM.

    Since then, Intel has made significant price cuts to the Core 2 Quad line. However, the prices of Core i7 motherboards and DDR3 RAM have also dropped, largely negating the Core 2 price drop. Despite Intel's attempts to price high-end Core 2 Quads low enough to ward off obsolesce, the fact remains that the Core i7 completely stomps Core 2 Quad processors at most tasks, and the beating becomes more severe as the benchmarks become more intense.

    As a result, recommending the Core i7 920 is a very easy thing to do. Those purchasing the Core i7 920 are still going to have to expect to pay a bit of early adopter tax. However, it simply doesn't make sense to purchase expensive hardware for older, socket 775 processors at this point. The Core i7 is the future, the future is here, and at less then $300 dollars , it isn't even that expensive.