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Slaying (Yesterday's) Dragon
AMD has finally done it. After several years of playing catch-up, AMD has finally launched a line of desktop processors - the Phenom II - which is competitive with Intel's Core 2 Duo and Quad processors. This is a moment that has been long anticipated by everyone who enjoys rooting for the underdog, and a moment that has been constantly delayed thanks to the poor performance and other problems (remeber TLB) of the original Phenom.
Of course, one might wonder why it matters. Core i7 is already out, and mainstream Nehelem peocessors are supposed to debut midway through this year. It may seem that AMD's new chip is too little, too late. But the hardware market isn't the same as it was a few years back. An increased number of cores available, a massive difference in processor prices, and the paths of Intel and AMD's sockets are all conspiring to make Nehalem the first mainstream processor launch from Intel in recent memory which will go largely ignored by users. The extra speed simply isn't needed in a majority of situations. The fact the Atom processor is doing so well for Intel, despite being less powerful than processors over five years old, is indicative of how the market for microprocessors is no longer centered on the fastest and newest processors available.
Still, the fact that Core 2 processors are so old is troublesome for AMD. Intel has had plenty of time to streamline manufacturing of the Core 2 architecture, and this leaves Intel with room to price drop. And price drop they have. So the question becomes - what is worth your money. The new Phenom II, or a faithful Core 2 based processor?
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Round One - The Processors
Since the Phenom II line is so new, picking out the stars is easy. In fact, there are just two particular processors that you should spend the majority of your time considering. The first is the Phenom II X3 720, a tri-core processor clocked at 2.8Ghz and retailing for about the same price as an iPod Nano. The 720 is not one of the fastest processors you by, but it is fast enough for many users, and it compares favorably to Intel products at slightly higher prices. The Phenom II X3 720 is also a Black Edition processor, which means overclocking is very easy. The same holds true for the other Phenom II star, the X4 940, a 3.0Ghz Quad-Core which hovers around $225 and, like the 720, compares well to Intel products in the same price range.
Intel's product line is more difficult to explain briefly, as it has been around for awhile. Once upon a time, enthusiasts could rattle on about the greatness of a Core 2 Duo E8400, but now Intel also offers the E8500, the E8600, and is rumored to soon be launching an E8700. Determining which to buy requires some time spent contemplating value and performance, making the buying processor more confusing. But the upshot of this is flexibility. No matter what your price point, be it close to $100 or more like $250, Intel has something that is very close to what you're looking to spend.
So, which processor is a better value? In terms of performance, the Phenom II processors have an edge. The Phenom II 720 tends to perform similarly to the E8400, and the Phenom II 940 tends to be a bit better than a Q9400. The Phenom II processors are the least expensive in both comparisons, giving AMD and edge over Intel. This, of course, also means that the value is better, and this is where AMD wins the most points. You'd be hard pressed to notice the difference between a Phenom II 720 and an E8400 in real-world use, but you'll certianly notice the extra twenty bucks in your pocket.
The maturity of Intel's product lineup is a knock against AMD, however. You'll note that the X3 720 costs $145 on Newegg, while the Phenom II X4 940 costs $225. That is an $80 price difference, which is nothing to sneeze at. What if you only want to spend $200? Then the Intel E8500 might be a better choice.
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Round Two - The Chipsets
Although it should go without saying that buying a new processor, unless you are upgrading your existing system, also involves buying a chipset, and that the quality of that chipset should factor into your decision. It is easy to forget about the chipset when considering different processors: chipsets are not nearly as exciting as processors. But the chipset has a major effect on the overall price of the system, the quality of the system, and the upgrade paths available to the system.
If you end up purchasing an Intel processor, than you would also be purchasing an Intel chipset, most likely Intel's P43 or P45. There are quite a few other chipsets available that will support Core 2 Duos, but assuming that you're purchasing these processors for use in a primary use desktop, the P43 and P45 are by far the most relevant, unless you want Nvidia's SLI graphics in which case you need an Nvidia chipset.
Both of those Intel chipsets have been praised for offering good overclocking headroom, good drivers, and all the features that most users will ever need. The Achilles heel of the Intel chipsets, however, is the integrated graphics. As you've probably heard, Intel's integrated graphics are not good. Even if you don't play games or watch high-def video, they are poor enough that you may still run into a slow-down. If you aren't buying a discrete graphics card, the Nvidia chipsets then become preferable.
On the AMD side, you're probably looking at buying a chipset from the 780 or 790 series. These chipsets are known primarily for their excellent integrated graphics, as the take advantage of Radeon graphics cores. This makes them a much better choice for the avid user of multi-media, or a user who occasionally games. Considering that the chipsets from AMD do not have a higher average cost than the chipsets from Intel, and are in fact usually quite a bit cheaper, there seems little reason for anyone interested in a decent IGP to go with the Intel chipsets.
The biggest difference between Intel and AMD in this scenario is the one I've be tip-toeing around so far: the socket. AMD motherboards use AM2/AM2+/AM3, while Intel uses LGA775. The victor here is clearly AMD. It is hard to justify buying an LGA775 chipset when Core i7 has arrived and LGA775 is effectively without an upgrade path. AMD, meanwhile, offers a solid upgrade path for its users, as there is no major architecture change planned until 2011.
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A Solid Blow
Phenom II has allowed AMD to land a solid blow against Intel in the mid-range and performance processor markets. The Phenom II is not better in all situations, and its product line-up is far less mature. It is also likely that the current triumphs of the Phenom II will start to be eroded by the inevitable release of cheaper Nehelem based products. Even so, the Phenom II X3 720 and the Phenom II X4 940 are extremely solid products which slightly edge out Intel. It is the death of the LGA775 which hurts Intel the most, however. While current LGA775 products are certainly cheap, it is very difficult to recommend them when AMD's more versatile socket has such good processors available for it.
The victory, then goes to AMD. If you're looking to buy a processor for under $250, then there are few cases where the Intel option is compelling compared to Phenom II.