AMD Phenom X4 9600

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AMD Phenom X4 9600
  • AMD Phenom X4 9600
  • AMD Phenom X4 9600
  • AMD Phenom X4 9600

Pros

  • Four individual CPU cores, integrated memory controller, power management for each CPU core and the memory controller, runs on any AM2 and AM2+ motherboards

Cons

  • Slower performance than Intel's competing Core 2-based chips

Bottom Line

Those of you who already own an AM2-based AMD motherboard can give your PCs some added punch by upgrading to a Phenom 9600 quad-core chip. Sure, it's not as fast as an Intel Core 2-based CPU, but it's still a very decent product, which also has plenty of features that aim to reduce power consumption during idle times.

Would you buy this?

Let's get this out of the way first: AMD's Phenom micro-architecture isn't going to produce results as fast as Intel's Core 2 micro-architecture, especially not against Intel's 45nm-based chips, but it sure as heck is competitive against Intel's 65nm-based chips. It offers a decent performance improvement over the previous generation of AMD Athlon 64 X2 chips and, of course, in the case of the Phenom 9600, it has four cores, which is great for multitasking.

There are some distinct technological differences between AMD's quad-core Phenom and Intel's Core 2 Quad, which aren't reflected in our benchmark results, but considering that AMD's Phenom is still a generation behind Intel's Core 2 as far as the size of its transistors are concerned, it's still a decent chip and well worth considering.

The Phenom 9600 runs at 2.3GHz and it's AMD's first quad-core CPU for the desktop, using transistors that are 65nm in length. It has four independent CPU cores all on the same die. This is unlike Intel's Core 2 Quad 6600 CPU (codenamed Kentsfield), which, at 2.4GHz is currently the closest match to the Phenom 9600 in terms of clock speed, and is instead comprised of two dual-core CPU dies in the same physical package.

Each Phenom core has access to a common area of level 3 cache that is 2MB in size, and each core also has access to its own 512KB level 2 cache. The CPU has an integrated memory controller; it'll only accept DDR2 memory, but can run it at speeds up to 1066MHz as it has an independent memory clock. It connects to the system chipset via a 3.6GHz (full duplex) HyperTransport link, but there is a caveat: if a motherboard with an AM2 socket is used, rather than one using an AM2+ socket, then it will only connect at 2GHz (full duplex). Perhaps the most intriguing features of Phenom are the ones concerning power consumption.

AMD has implemented dynamic power management technology that works independently of a motherboard's BIOS. It can run each of the four cores of the CPU at different speeds; it'll slow down any cores at any time depending on the load, which leads to greater power efficiency.

Because the CPU cores and the memory controller run off different power planes, the memory can also be effectively managed to consume less power when it's not in use, but this also requires an AM2+ socket. In fact, when used with an AM2+ motherboard and a 7-series AMD chipset, the memory controller can be flushed of its data and shut down. This feature is called Energy Cache and it's actually part of the Northbridge chipset of the motherboard. The flushed data is sent to the Energy Cache in a bid to conserve more power.

As for performance, we tested the 9600 in a Gigabyte GA-MA790FX-DQ6 motherboard with 2GB of DDR2 RAM, a 750GB Seagate hard drive and an ATI Radeon HD 3870-based graphics card. It produced solid results in our tests, and it's competitive against Intel's slightly faster Core 2 Quad 6600. In WorldBench 6 it scored 90, while in iTunes, which can take advantage of multiple CPU cores, it encoded 53min worth of WAV files to 192Kbps MP3 files in 1min 24sec. In Cdex, which uses one CPU core, it took 1min 54sec. These results are about 30sec slower than what an Intel Core 2 Quad 6600 can accomplish. Likewise, in WorldBench 6, Intel's Core 2 Quad 6600 managed 105, which represents a performance advantage of about 15 per cent in typical office, photo editing, and compression applications. In Blender, which is a 3-D rendering application, the Phenom processed four threads simultaneously in 48sec, which is only eight seconds slower than what a comparably configured Core 2 Quad 6600-based PC achieved.

Indeed, the performance results of the 9600 aren't spectacular, but they're still in the same arena as a similarly-clocked Intel Core 2 CPU. The good news is that going from an AMD dual-core to an AMD quad-core CPU should be a seamless transition for most users. The 9600 won't require a special chipset to run; it'll run on any motherboards that have AM2 and AM2+ CPU sockets, but might require a BIOS update in some cases. Check on your motherboard manufacturer's Web site to make sure an update is available for your board before splurging on the new CPU.

For enthusiasts, the 9600 can be overclocked, but only through front side bus manipulation as it has a locked clock multiplier (it can't go any higher). We ran it at 2.5GHz without any reliability problems, and it improved its score in WorldBench 6 by five points (from 90 to 95). It consumes about 95W of electricity at its maximum processing load, and it ships with a relatively small heat sink, which, when plugged into a motherboard with automatic fan control, is almost silent. It appears to be a great choice for users who want to build a powerful, but quiet-running quad-core media centre PC.

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