Tech + Lifestyle

games, gear, and googleplexes (joke)

Everybody, meet Phenom II

Phenom II

AMD’s new processor is finally here. Yay! Now, what does that mean for the consumer…

For starters, it means some legitimate competition between AMD and Intel, which is never a bad thing. Ever since Intel’s Core 2 series of processors was released, AMD has struggled to keep up. They had passed fat, lazy Intel in 2001 with the excellent Athlon XP processors, then pulled an Intel and got fat and lazy themselves. The original Phenom line was supposed to close the gap between AMD and Intel, but failed due to defects in the product (TLB errors, anyone?). Anyway, they’ve finally gotten it right with Phenom II. I really can’t get into an exhaustive analysis, as I don’t have samples of it to work with, but I’ll summarize the benefits of the new processors, as well as how well they stack up against Intel processors, particularly their Core i7 series of quad cores.

Gaming:

AMDs new Dragon platform

AMD's new Dragon platform

When all is said and done, this is primarily a gaming blog – though not everything is a game review/preview/what have you, most of my tech coverage is done from the standpoint of gaming. With that in mind, I feel it’s only appropriate to start off the comparison between Phenom II and Core i7 with gaming performance.

First and foremost, let it be known that the Core i7 is a beast of a gaming processor, in all its variants. The original Phenom’s gaming performance was, in a word, mediocre. AMD went so far as to describe as “good enough” – that attitude really doesn’t cut it in my book. Merely being good enough is unacceptable, especially given all the other issues Phenom processors have had.

Phenom II (mostly) fixes that. In gaming comparisons against the Core i7, it gives a middling performance – sometimes only 2-3% worse than a Core i7 920, and others time more like 15-20% worse. Mind you, this is comparing the Phenom II 940 (@ 3.0GHz) against the Core i7 920 (@2.66 GHz). In all fairness, though, this is only an initial testing, and most sites have yet to decide the best way in which to appropriately and adequately compare the two. Some are going along with the naming convention that AMD chose, comparing the Phenom II 920 to the Core i7 920 and the Phenom II 940 to the Core i7 940. Others argue that the Phenom II just isn’t positioned to go against the Core i7 series, but rather the Core 2 Quad line of processors. From a pricing standpoint, they’re correct. When compared to quad-core processors of similar price in the Intel lineup – notably, the Q9400 for the 940, and the Q8200 or 8300 for the 920 – it does admirably well.

Power Consumption:

Power Consumption

Power Consumption

If there’s one thing the the Phenom II has truly improved over the original Phenom, it’s power usage.

When comparing the Phenom II 940 and 920 at idle to original Phenom processors like the 9950 and 9850, you see a drop in power consumption from 17 or 18 watts to more like 10 watts – nothing to laugh at. At the same time, Core i7 processors have absurdly low idle power requirements, coming in at between 1.5 and 3 watts, depending on the processor. Sounds like the Core i7 trumps the Phenom II at idle, right? Not so fast. In a purely academic setting, yes – Core i7 is more efficient at idle. In the real world, you’ve got to take more into consideration than just the processor. Phenom II ends up winning at idle because AM2+ motherboards are much, much more efficient than the X-58 boards that Core i7 requires. In testing, the overall systems look more like 135-145 watts for Core i7, as compared to only about 110-115 watts for Phenom II.

At load is a little different. Phenom II processors consume 85-95 watts at a full load, and a Core i7 920 consumes only around 75 watts. Even a Core i7 965 only uses about 90 watts under load. With the whole system under consideration, though, you’re looking at 200-205 watts for a Phenom II system, and 215-245 watts for Core i7 (920 on the low end, 965 on the high side of things).

Overall, a Phenom II system is about 9-10% more efficient than the original Phenom at idle. That number increases to more like 20-25% at load. This is due to a number of things. First, the Cool’nQuiet feature actually works in Phenom II, allowing it to dynamically adjust the clock of each core to achieve maximum efficiency; this was all kinds of screwed up in the first Phenom, to the extent that almost nobody used it. Secondly, moving from 65nm to the 45nm manufacturing process always helps. Last, massively increasing the L3 cache size allows the processor to keep each core fed for a higher percentage of the time, yielding more efficient processing.

Compatability:

AMD Socket AM2+

AMD Socket AM2+

If you’ve already got an AM2+ system, you’re in luck.

AMD was able to design the Phenom II to be both AM2+ and AM3 compatible. Essentially, the first release of the processor is for socket-AM2+, and uses DDR2 RAM (heck, motherboard manufacturers could even release BIOS updates allowing it to be AM2 combatible). Once motherboards with the AM3 socket are released, AMD will sell socket-AM3 Phenom II processors that will work with the new AM3 systems, meaning it’ll use DDR3. On a side note, the frequency of the memory controller and L3 cache will increase from 1.8GHz to 2.0GHz. The really cool part? It’ll work with AM2+ systems as well, due to pin compatability.

This might not seem like a big deal, but it’ll contribute more to the market penetration of the Phenom II than you might think. The economy sucks, right? Everyone should realize that by now, even typically-oblivious geeks. Gamers and power users alike will be able to get a cost-effective processor upgrade for their current systems, making them last *that* much longer. Compare that upgrade (either $275 for the 940 or $235 for the 920) to the cost of upgrading to Core i7 – bare minimum, you have to buy a Core i7 920, which is $295; an X-58 mobo, which run $210 at the cheapest; and 3 gigs of triple-channel DDR3 RAM, which will set you back about $150. At the very least, you’re looking at a $655 upgrade. True, it’ll last you longer, and you’ll get somewhat better performance out of it, but how many people really want to drop that much right now?

Conclusion:

AMD is finally back in the game.

They aren’t dominating the game – not by a long shot – but they are competitive. When you think about it, Phenom II fits really well with AMD’s current development philosophy. They aren’t shooting for the performance crown; instead, they’re offering up a wealth of other features. In fits and starts, AMD is trying to become the working man’s brand. They offer better power efficiency when you’re looking at the total system, which will save you money. They’re pricing their products competitively, again saving you money. Phenom II isn’t competing with the Core i7, and after a while you realize that it isn’t even trying to. It’s shooting for the Q9400 and the Q8200 or Q8300, and doing quite well in those positions. Shooting for the mid-range encourages even more competition, and allows them to eventually scale the design both up and down. Finally, this sucker is compatible with both current and future AMD systems, maximizing it’s value and use to the consumer.

So do I recommend the Phenom II? Yes and no. If you’ve already got an AMD system, this is a great way to get a bit more life out of it. If you’re just looking to put together a new build, at the very least wait until socket-AM3 comes out in a month or so. Really though, I’d advise saving your cash until you can afford a Core i7 system. That’s what I’m doing, and it’s only after giving a lot of thought.

As you read reviews of the processor on major sites across the web, you’ll see a lot of differing opinions on the chip. HardOCP, for example, tore the Phenom II apart. It didn’t beat the Core i7, and that was all they cared about, dismissing AMD’s offering as too little, too late. Other’s are a bit more forgiving.

In closing, it’s worth noting that the Phenom II’s footing right now is tenuous at best. Intel has been politely silent for now, but there are already rumors of an upcoming price cut across their product line. That would effectively render the Phenom II either a near-failure, or force AMD to cut the price of it without having any opportunity to recoup the cost. Given Intel’s previous history, I can’t imagine them going too long without some sort of product announcement or price-cut, if only to take the wind out of AMD’s sails.

Anyway, thanks for listening if you’ve gotten this far. I’m a bit long-winded at times; it’s just that I find this particular product announcement incredibly important as far as processors go. It’s got the potential to put AMD right back into the running as though nothing happened, or punish them for trying to grab more market share.

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January 8, 2009 - Posted by | Gaming, Tech | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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