AMD, Intel budget chipsets go head to head

AMD's 785G and Intel's P55 chipsets vie for dominance in the value PC market

Can AMD challenge Intel on the high end?

Intel still rules as far as higher-level processing is concerned. The company has established its dominance with the Core i7 line of processors, which constantly win performance benchmarks and push the processing envelope.

AMD has reacted by challenging Intel's dominance with AMD's Phenom II series, for which the company seems to be seeking buyers who want reasonably high performance at a lower cost.

AMD has upped the performance on the Phenom II by increasing clock speeds and other elements, such as onboard cache and memory controllers. With its latest processor, the Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition, AMD is gambling that potential purchasers will look at cost versus performance and choose AMD's top-of-the-line CPU over what Intel has to offer in the same price range (such as the Core 2 Quad Q9400 and the Core 2 Quad Q9550).

The 965 offers no real surprises -- it simply increases the clock speed to 3.4GHz over AMD's previous top-of-the-line CPU, the 955 Black Edition, which clocked in at 3.2GHz. The 965 BE has a Thermal Design Power (TDP) rating of 140 watts, while the 955 had a TDP of 125 Watts.

What do 15 additional watts of power and 0.2 additional gigahertz of clock speed bring to the table?

I recently built a system using the Phenom II x4 955 Black Edition processor, so testing this new CPU was a simple matter of swapping out the 955 for the 965.

I had already tested the 955 with PerformanceTest 7.0 from PassMark software, so I used the same measure for the new processor. The AMD 965 BE offered a CPUMark rating of 3865, which was a measurable (about 8 per cent) improvement over the 955 BE's CPUMark rating of 3590.

While I expected the 965 BE to be faster -- after all, it did offer an increase in clock speed -- the real news here is that the 965 BE will have an MSRP of $US245, which is the same price that the 955 BE was sold for, meaning that you can gain a little more performance without an increase in price.

Conclusions

Raw gigahertz is no longer a true indicator of overall performance. It really comes down to overall chip design. Intel and AMD have chosen very different paths to pursue performance, with AMD looking to cache and other design elements, while Intel focuses on other efficiencies, such as GHz and memory paths.

On the low end, it's evident, based on these tests, that AMD is ready to blaze a trail into the world of budget PCs designed for Windows 7. The company has successfully maintained a value standing, while cranking up performance to challenge Intel.

AMD has accomplished that goal by designing a chipset that is both faster than Intel's G41 and that uses newer technology, such as DDR3 memory. AMD scored in several areas with the 785G chipset, including performance, value and compatibility with new technologies. Intel will need to play catch-up if the company expects to beat AMD in the Windows 7 budget PC market.

Intel has upped the ante with the P55 chipset and Core i5 processor, although at a higher price. Simply put, if you are looking for the most value today, go with the AMD setup. On the other hand, if you're able to wait for Intel's prices to come down, the Intel P55 becomes a viable option, especially if you are looking to invest in a high-performance video card.

On the higher end, while it's nice that AMD is increasing performance, one has to wonder what that means when it comes to competing with Intel. As I wrote in a recent review, AMD's top-of-the-line 965 BE can't hold a candle to Intel's high-performance Core i7 CPUs.

However, things shift a bit if you've got a set budget and you're looking at performance per dollar. For example, Intel's midrange Core 2 Quad Q8200s has the same $US245 list price as AMD's 965 BE, but according to PassMark, offers a CPUMark of only 3181, 18 per cent slower in raw CPU performance than the AMD 965 BE. AMD then becomes an interesting choice for a company or individual who needs reasonable performance but needs to keep costs down.

Frank J. Ohlhorst is a technology professional specializing in products and services analysis and writes for several technology publications. His Web site can be found at www.ohlhorst.net.

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Frank J. Ohlhorst

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