Cheap Chip! Athlon II X4 Breaks the $100 Quad-Core Barrier

norman

Even the Intel fanboys have to hand it to AMD once in a while. After Intel deftly dropped a Core i5 anvil on Phenom II’s head, AMD did a quick drop to floor and now fires back slo-mo style with its own chip: a $99 quad core.

Dubbed the Athlon II X4 620, this 2.6GHz quad core isn’t just leftover parts swept off the factory floor, either. The Athlon II X4 is based on the familiar K10 microarchitecture in the Phenom and Phenom II, but it’s actually a newer, smaller die. In fact, the new chip has less than half the transistors of a Phenom II X4 processor. Much of the shrinkage comes at the expense of cache. While the Phenom II packs 6MB of L3, the budget Athlon II X4 features none.

The TDP of the new Athlon II X4 chips (there are two, but only one is sub $100) is also considerably lower than the top-end Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition chip at 95 watts versus 140 watts. Other than the TDP and lack of L3 cache, the CPUs are essentially the same as their Phenom predecessors.

In fact, some Athlon II procs may actually be the same as Phenom II. Although the majority of Athlon IIs will be the smaller Propus cores, AMD will double-source the chips by taking some cores that might have been turned into Phenom II X4s and switching off the L3. Other than that, these chips will be virtually the same as a Propus—same TDP, same L2 cache, same clocks. While it might seem unusual, AMD says the practice is not unprecedented and happens quite often with budget CPUs. Because both the would-be Deneb and Propus cores are 45nm and essentially the same microarchitecture, it’s unlikely this will have any practical impact on the end user, the company says.

Still, the breakthrough here is not technology, but price. Up to now, the closest a budget user could get to a quad core was the stale Phenom X4 9650. At one time restricted to OEM sales, AMD has begun blowing these elderly parts out at about $110. The Phenom X4 9650 has 2MB of L3, but its slower Hyper Transport (3.6GHz vs. the Athlon II X4’s 4GHz) speed, lack of AM3 support (and thus DDR3), and its use of the older 65nm process technology make it a less attractive option.

In Intel land, the Athlon II X4’s main competition isn’t even close. Intel’s cheapest quad-core part today is the Core 2 Quad Q8200. Like the Athlon II X4, the Q8200’s low price is the result of a shrunken die size made possible by cutting cache. While the $220 Core 2 Quad Q9550 has 12MB of L2 cache, the $150 Core 2 Quad Q8200 has but 4MB of L2 cache.

Higher up the food chain, Intel made a significant technology and price breakthrough with the Core i5-750, but at $200 for the chip itself, it’s for folks with richer tastes. The extra $100 you can save with an Athlon II X4 is enough to buy an entry-level motherboard and the RAM to go with it.

To Quad or Not?

The budget buyer’s toughest question is whether to even opt for quad. Since price is the primary concern for the budget buyer, it’s worthwhile to consider all the various options in dual-core land. You could, for example, skip the Athlon II X4 620 in favor of the Athlon II X2 250. This would give you a 3GHz dual-core instead of the 2.6GHz quad-core and saves you about $13. Even cheaper, there’s AMD’s Athlon II X2 240, a 2.8GHz dual-core that’s listed at $60.

We didn’t run the performance numbers on these chips as we already know the answer: Which chip you buy should depend on what you do. Since the vast majority of games are not optimized for quad-core, a 3GHz dual-core will actually outperform a 2.6GHz quad core in gaming. The same can be said if you spend the bulk of your day in a browser or Microsoft Word: The two additional cores just don’t get you anything. On the other hand, if you encode media, edit photos, or you’re even an advanced Microsoft Excel user, a quad-core is well worth the dough. You don’t get double the performance everywhere, but for well-optimized apps, you could see substantial gains. How substantial? If an encoding job takes three hours on your 3GHz dual-core, it could take 1.6 hours on 2.6GHz quad core.

AMD’s new 45nm Propus core is at the heart of the new $99 Athlon II X4 quad-core.

Quad-cores will also pay dividends if you’re a heavy multitasker running more than one compute-intensive application at a time. Our final message to you is that a quad-core machine might actually get faster over time. That’s because apps are being continually upgraded and coding for four or more cores is a factor on most developers’ radar. That translates into faster performance on your quad core as the apps get updated.

Quads Compared

CPU Specs
CPU
2.66GHz Core i7-920 2.66GHz Core i7-750 2.33GHz Core 2 Quad Q8200
3.4GHz Phenom II X4 965 BE
2.8GHz Athlon II X4 630
2.6GHz Athlon II X4 620
Socket
LGA1366 LGA1156
LGA775 AM3
AM3
AM3
Price (Volume)
$284 $199
$163 $245
$122
$99
Price (Street)
$280 N/A
$150
$256
$122
$99
TDP
130Watts
95 Watts 95 Watts
140 Watts
95 Watts
95 Watts
Codename Bloomfield
Lynnfield
Yorkfield
Deneb
Propus*
Propus*
QPI/HT 4.8GT/s 4.8GT/s
N/A
4GHz 4GHz 4GHz
Core Clock
2.66GHz 2.66GHz
2.33GHz
3.4GHz 2.8GHz 2.6GHz
Turbo Boost (Max 1 Core) 2.93GHz 3.2GHz
N/A
N/A N/A N/A
HyperThreading? Yes
No
N/A
N/A N/A N/A
Cores/Threads 4/8 4/4 4/4 4/4 4/4 4/4
L1 Cache
256KB 256KB 256KB
512KB
512KB 512KB
L2 Cache
1MB 1MB
4MB
2MB
2MB
2MB
L3 Cache
8MB 8MB
N/A
6MB N/A
N/A
Die Size (mm^2) 263 296 164
258
169
169
Transistor Count (million)
731 774
456
758
300
300
Process (nm)
45 45
45
45
45
45
Memory Controller
Tri Channel Dual Channel N/A
Dual Channel
Dual Channel
Dual Channel

* Some Athlon II X4s will use Deneb cores with L3 cache disabled.

Next up, the performance tests and benchmarks.

Performance

We don’t want to telegraph the winner of this budget grudge-match, but the Athlon II X4 accomplishes what AMD wanted: It’s not the fastest game in town, nor the sexiest, but it’s certainly the cheapest and it can hold its own against the current offerings of Intel. Of course, that’s if you factor in price as a big component. We can tell you this: There isn’t one single thing the Athlon II X4 is faster at than the Core i5. Not one. However, the Athlon II X4 is half the price, and in this economy, well, that can mean a lot.

Ménage à Quad

Three cheap chips do battle in the benchmark arena

For our benchmark analysis we looked at three of the relevant CPUs: Intel’s $150 Core 2 Quad Q8200, AMD’s $99 Athlon II X4 620, and Intel’s $200 Core i5-750. All three platforms used an EVGA GeForce GTX 280 card, Windows Vista Home Premium in 64-bit flavor, and a 150GB Western Digital Raptor drive. We used an Asus Maximus II Formula board with 4GB of DDR2/1066 for the Core 2 Quad, a Gigabyte GA-MA790FXT-UDF5P with 4GB of DDR3/1333 for the Athlon II X4, and a Gigabyte GA-P55-UD6 for the Core i5-750 processor. Our benchmark suite ran the gamut, from bandwidth-intensive to compute-limited to real-world performance tests.

First: There’s simply no comparison between the Core i5 and either the Core 2 Quad or Athlon II X4. There’s not a single benchmark among those we ran where the Core 2 Quad or Athlon II could outgun the Core i5. The Core i5 is easily faster than those two chips by double-digit percentages, generally around 30 percent faster. But you knew that. After all, it costs twice as much as the Athlon II and about 25 percent more than the Core 2 Quad.

Between the Core 2 Quad and Athlon II X4, it’s an interesting mix. Generally, the Athlon II X4 is significantly faster in encoding than the Core 2 Quad. But in gaming, it’s significantly slower. However, that’s based on running the game at low resolution and with features turned off to take the GPU out of the equation. At normal resolutions or with a dual-GPU setup, you’d likely see little difference between the two chips.

Considering the Athlon II X4’s advantage in encoding tasks we’re going to declare it the winner. Even taking into account that it was slower in our two photo-oriented tasks: ProShow Producer and Photoshop CS3, we still think the Athlon II X4 has the edge. Besides, it’s 50 percent cheaper than the Core 2 Quad. And at half the price of the Core i5, this one is an easy win for AMD.

BENCHMARKS
CPU
2.6GHz Athlon II X4 620
2.33GHz Core 2 Quad Q8200
2.66GHz Core i5-750*
MainConcept Reference 1.0 (sec)
1772
1976
1337
Premiere Pro CS3 (sec)
899
888
620
Cinebench 10 64-bit 9941
10184
14442
Handbrake (sec)
1559 1681
1198
PCMark Vantage 64-bit Overall 5792
5299
7208
POV Ray 3.7
2334
2191
2773
Photoshop CS3 (sec)
165
146
128
ProShow Producer (sec)
1224
997
700
Everest 5.0 RAM Read (MB/s)
8544
7511
12867
Everest 5.0 RAM Write (MB/s)
6960
7059 9881
Everest 5.0 RAM Copy (MB/s) 10028
7397
14684
Everest 5.0 RAM Latency (ns)
52.5
66.7
31
Sandra RAM Bandwidth (GB/s)
12.3
7.2
16.8
Fritz Chess Benchmark
12.93
13.79
17.38
3DMark Vantage Overall
13727
14260
14947
3DMark Vantage GPU
11371
11840
12249
3DMark Vantage CPU
36269
36863
44066
Valve Particle Test (fps)
71
81
124
Valve Map Compilation (sec)
157
163
121
Crysis (fps)
83.1
99.5
147
Resident Evil 5(fps) 70.7
70.3
109
World in Conflict (fps)
137
155
266
WinRar 3.20 RAW (sec)
1067
1110
706

* Bold score denotes the winner, but only between the Core 2 Quad and Athlon II X4. The Core i5 trounces both the Athlon II X4 and Core 2 Quad in every benchmark but we included it for reference.

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