AMD Socket AM3 Phenom II: What's New About These Phenom IIs?

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Didn’t We Just Do This?

In January, AMD unveiled its new Phenom II processors. AMD has boasted that they would be faster, more efficient, and a better value than previous Phenom processors, and they were correct on all accounts. The Phenom II is still a fair bit behind Intel’s Core i7, but the Phenom II is priced to compete with the dying Core 2 Quad architecture, not the Core i7. And against Core 2 Quads, the new AMD processors provided to have staying power, posting similar performance numbers and slightly better prices.

The two original Phenom II processors were the 920 and the 940, running at 2.8Ghz and 3.0Ghz respectively. These two processors were both AM2+ processors, however, which means they were not built to take advantage of AMD’s new AM3 socket architecture. AMD was quick to bring AM3 processors to the market, however, and in mid February launched five AM3 processors. This put hardware review sites in the unusual position of writing a Phenom II processor review - and then writing another Phenom II processor review only a month later.

What’s New, Phenom II?

The five new AM3 processors consist of two triple-core models and three quad-core models. The triple core models are the 2.6Ghz X3 710 and the 2.8Ghz X3 720 Black Edition, while the quad-core lineup consists of the 2.5Ghz X4 805, the 2.6Ghz X4 810, and the 2.6Ghz X4 910. The X3 710 and X3 720 are similar, but the 720 offers a slightly higher clock speed and an unlocked multiplier, which is great for enthusiasts interested in overclocking. The quad-core models are all similar as well, but the X4 910 has a larger cache, which is why it is considered to be a higher-performance part than the X4 810, which has an identical clock speed.

Because the latest batch of Phenom II processors use the AM3 socket, there are some notable differences between them and the previously released 920 and 940 quad-cores. The biggest difference is that the new socket AM3 processors support DDR3 memory. The use of DDR3 memory is not going to substantially increased the performance of an AM3 processor when compared to an AM3 processor paired with DDR2 RAM, but it is an appropriate feature to have on any new architecture. DDR3 offers both better performance lower power consumption. It is a particularly attractive feature now that DDR3 prices have taken a nose-dive. Besides that, the new socket AM3 Phenom II processors also have a faster Hypertransport route, faster L3 cache, and a faster memory controller, all of which run at 2Ghz. This is a very minor improvement, but it is still nice to have.

A New CPU Value Champion

Of course, talking about hardware specs is all well and good, but ultimately the big question is how these processors perform in the real world. In the past, Phenom processors, even at the cutting edge of AMD’s offerings, have only been somewhat competitive. In fact, the slowest Phenom processors often seemed less interesting then the fastest Athlon X2 dual-cores, particularly if you were interested in playing PC games. The X3 lineup was also notorious for providing very few interesting choices, as the original X3 Phenoms were often so slow that the addition of the third core offered no performance increase over comparable dual core processors, even in applications known for making good use of additional cores.

My, how things can change. The Phenom II’s better clock-for-clock performance against Intel’s Core 2 processors translates well into AMD’s relatively inexpensive AM3 products. AMD has wisely positioned these new products to be good values for enthusiasts, and as a result they are capable of making a good case for themselves against anything Intel offers in a similar price range. The biggest winner is the AMD X3 720, which can be had for less than $150 dollars. AMD obviously wants this processor to tackle Intel’s E8400 Core 2 Duo, a processor that has been a top enthusiast price/performance champion since its debut, and they seem to have succeeded in dislodged that old favorite.

The X3 720 performs slightly worse than the 8400 in most PC games, but it also performs much better at tasks like encoding video or running 3D rendering software. Plus, it has an unlocked multiplier, which makes it absurdly easy to overclock for free performance gains - all you need to do is open the BIOS and change the multiplier to a higher number. When you add the fact that the AM3 socket is one with a bright future, and the LGA775 socket used by the Core 2 processors is being replaced, the choice for a new system builders is obvious. The X3 720 is a much better choice than anything else in its price range.

For the average user, the Phenom II X4 805, 810, and 910 are less exciting. In fact, the 805 and 910 are probably never going to be released as retail parts, but instead be sold only to OEMs. However, if you’re looking for a gaming system or low-budget workstation, then these new AM3 Phenom IIs, as well as the previous AM2+ Phenom IIs, are very attractive deals. Intel’s Core 2 Quads just don’t offer the same bang for the buck.

It is clear that Intel still has the high-performance market for processors locked up. None of these new AM3 Phenom II processors come anywhere close to matching the cheapest Core i7 processor. However, many users do not need the fastest processors - in fact, the only systems that absolutely require a top-of-the-line CPU are professional workstations. For everyone else, these new AM3 processors very appealing. It seems that, for now, the AM3 Phenom IIs are the new value champion.