Clock for Clock, Still Slower than Core 2 & Core i7

It was important on the last page to point out that the predominant difference between Phenom and Phenom II is the larger L3 cache; although there are minor architectural tweaks we're fundamentally looking at a core that remains very similar to the Phenom it replaced. The larger L3 cache helps Phenom II stay fed more frequently without painful trips down main memory lane, but Intel's architectures should still be faster at the same clock speed. To prove that point let's look at the following data. It's a subset of the benchmark suite for this article and what we've got below is Phenom II, Core i7, and Core 2 Quad all running at 3.0GHz (the Core i7 runs at 2.93GHz):

Processor Clock Speed Adobe Photoshop CS4 (lower is better) x264 Pass 2 3dsmax 9 Cinebench SYSMark 2007 Overall Left 4 Dead FarCry 2
AMD Phenom II X4 940 3.0GHz 24.2 s 17.8 fps 10.8 12393 182 116.2 fps 48.2 fps
Intel Core 2 Quad Q9650 3.0GHz 19.4 s 19.9 fps 12.0 12983 209 125.2 fps 61.9 fps
Intel Core i7-940 2.93GHz 15.8 s 29.2 fps 16.2 17346 229 123 fps 71.0 fps
Core 2 Quad Q9650 Advantage - 19.8% 11.8% 11.1% 4.8% 14.8% 7.7% 28.4%
Core i7-940 Advantage - 34.7% 64% 50% 40% 25.8% 5.9% 47.3%
Core 2 Quad Q9650 Disadvantage $265
Core i7-940 Disadvantage $295+

Clock for clock, Intel has the advantage across the board. It gets very close between Phenom II and Penryn (Q9650) under Cinebench, but 3dsmax 9 shows a wider gap of 11% between the two. Gaming also looks pretty close if you look at Left 4 Dead; however, Far Cry 2 (a newer engine and much more heavily threaded game) is on the opposite end of the spectrum. The take away point is that compared to Penryn, Phenom II is slower clock-for-clock. The gap grows with Nehalem; Phenom II only gets close in older game engines, while the rest of the time Nehalem is 30-60% faster at the same clock speed.

What matters isn't just absolute performance however, it's performance at a given price point. The last two rows tell an important story; while Intel is faster at the same clock speed, the CPUs themselves cost twice as much as AMD's Phenom II. Nehalem's cost premium is even higher as X58 based motherboards are still above $200, plus they require DDR3 memory. It doesn't matter that AMD won't win the absolute performance crown with Phenom II; like the Radeon HD 4800 series, what's important here is whether or not AMD is competitive at the performance mainstream price points. It's this question that we'll be answering over the course of today's review.

Core i7: Total Cost of Ownership

While Intel's Core i7 is undeniably the fastest CPU on the market today, it comes at a steep cost. The i7 920 is competitively priced at $295, and outperforms the Phenom II X4 940 across the board, but it will only work with DDR3 memory and requires an X58 motherboard - and those are currently selling for no less than $200. The table below summarizes the problem with comparing Nehalem to Phenom II:

Processor CPU Motherboard Memory* Total Cost
AMD Phenom II X4 940 $275 $120 $75 $470
Intel Core i7-920 $295 $210 $150 $655
Intel Core 2 Quad Q9400 $270 $100 $75 $445

Note: This is the cost for 6GB of DDR2-1066 or DDR3-1333 memory, although you can only install 4GB or 8GB in the Phenom II/Core 2 Quad boards

 

Despite the similar CPU costs, the motherboard and DDR3 memory costs make the i7-920 a 40% more expensive purchase. For the difference in platform cost you could purchase a faster graphics card, bigger hard drive, or even put money towards an SSD. Core i7's total cost of ownership keeps it from being Phenom II's direct competition; instead Phenom II is really competing with Intel's 45nm Core 2 Quad processors.

While X58 motherboards will always be pricey thanks to the high-end chipset costs (the minimum pricing we're hearing is $185), DDR3 prices should fall over time, especially once AMD starts moving over to DDR3 in the coming months. Right now DDR2 is incredibly affordable, working in AMD's favor.

With Core i7 out of the running, our eyes turn to Core 2 Quad as Phenom II's intended competition. The table above hints at the Q9400 as Phenom II's competition today, but let me flesh things out a little more:

Processor Clock Speed Cache 1K Unit Cost
Intel Core 2 Quad Q9650 3.00GHz 12MB L2 $530
Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 2.83GHz 12MB L2 $316
AMD Phenom II X4 940 3.0GHz 2MB L2 + 6MB L3 $275
Intel Core 2 Quad Q9400 2.66GHz 6MB L2 $266
AMD Phenom II X4 920 2.8GHz 2MB L2 + 6MB L3 $235
Intel Core 2 Quad Q8300 2.50GHz 4MB L2 $224
Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200 2.33GHz 4MB L2 $193
Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 (65nm) 2.40GHz 8MB L2 $183

Other than the Q6600, all of the CPUs in the above chart are 45nm parts (congrats AMD). But look at where the Phenom II slots in. The Phenom II X4 940 is slightly more expensive than a Q9400, while the 920 is a Q8300 competitor. With Core i7's platforms pricing it out of the comparison, the table above should indicate what you need to look at when comparing Phenom II and Core 2 Quad.

I'll mention this briefly here (and more later). Pay close attention to the Q9650 and Q9550. Intel has the ability to move those down the price list, whereas the Phenom II X4 940 is going to be the fastest Phenom II out for the next couple of months.

Ok, I lied, Intel Spoils the Party. Rumored Intel Price Cuts

At the end of last year Intel made some minor price cuts across its product lineup. There was no reason to do anything more serious as AMD hadn't even begun to threaten anything above the Core 2 Quad Q6600.

I've heard, through reliable but very quiet channels, that before the end of January Intel will aggressively cut prices on its entire quad-core lineup. Given how Intel historically cuts prices, we could expect the Core 2 Quad Q9550 would take the place of the Q9400 and have the Q9400 move down to the price point of the Q8300, thus creating a price war; and you thought 2008 was the last of that.

If Intel were to push its prices down like that, the Q9550 would compete with the Phenom II X4 940, and the Core 2 Quad Q9400 would go up against the Phenom II X4 920 instead. If this happens, the conclusion I mentioned on the first page changes. The Phenom II X4 940 can't beat the Q9550, and the 920 can't beat the Q9400. Intel has the ability to do this; it's got faster chips that are more expensive and has just enjoyed 2+ years of unchallenged competition. The Intel from the Pentium 4 days may have let AMD launch Phenom II unchecked, but today's Intel is much more...dynamic.

The take away is that today Phenom II competes with the Q9400 and the Q8300, but by the end of this month that may change to the Q9550 and Q9400.

Phenom II's Secret, In Pictures Cache and Memory Controller Comparison
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  • poohbear - Thursday, January 08, 2009 - link

    this is fantastic news! and just when i was about to upgrade from my ancient s939 system to a C2D system, seems i might be sticking to AMD after all! thanks for review! Reply
  • PrezWeezy - Thursday, January 08, 2009 - link

    For less than $20 more the i7 920 looks like it wins in every single test by a fair margin, doesn't seem like this is really all that competitive, considering the i7 is still in the "high price" phase. I can't believe it wont drop to the $275 mark rather soon which would put the XII 940 back to the same position the original Phenom was, too little too late. Reply
  • Roland00 - Thursday, January 08, 2009 - link

    More expensive Motherboard+More expensive Ram makes i7 about 400 dollars more in cost Reply
  • strikeback03 - Friday, January 09, 2009 - link

    How you figure? By the chart on page 4, it is less than $200. Even if you go for one of the $300 motherboards, you won't see a $400 difference.

    When I built my current system, E6600/P965/2GB DDR2 cost me over $600, and that was considered a decent mid-range system. As my primary use of computing power is Photoshop, I would definitely go for i7 even if cheaper motherboards do not become available.
    Reply
  • Roland00 - Friday, January 09, 2009 - link

    It isn't quite 400 but here

    motherboard p45 vs x58 most x58 are 300 vs 100-120 for p45,
    Ram, 6 gb of ddr3 is about 200, vs 50 or 60 for 6gb of ddr2.
    For a nonstock cpu cooler you are talking 60 to 70 bucks with the i7 for it is a new socket and their is very few products for it. You can get a good cpu cooler for intel quad for 30 to 40 dollars.

    Savings about 200+140+30=370

    If you get things on sale you might be able to find 6gb ram for 150, cpu for 230, and you may be able to get the motherboard cheaper if you get one of the basic versions but you are still talking about 300 more.
    -----
    I am not saying i7 isn't worth the extra money, it is still new tech but it does show beneficial gains (on encoding, minimum frame rate on games, and overclocking) but right now the motherboards and ram is expensive.
    Reply
  • BSMonitor - Friday, January 09, 2009 - link

    You are rounding up on i7 side and rounding down on the core 2 side. It is not $50 for 6GB of DDR2. It is not only $300 for x58. I have seen them for $200. I have seen 6GB DDR3 kits for $140 too.

    It's like we are talking about bare entry into Core 2 and Phenom II, but enthusiest for i7. Why does one need 6GB to entry into i7? 3GB would be reasonable and ~$70-80.

    Phenom II is cute yes, but nothing to jump on.
    Reply
  • Roland00 - Friday, January 09, 2009 - link

    I am rounding up on the I7 side for like most people I buy things with tax (for my state charges tax on internet transactions.) In addition many people buy their equipment in stores such as fry's, microcenter, comp usa, etc.

    370 times 8.25% tax rate (my area's sales tax) is...400 dollars and 52 cents

    ------

    And no I am not overpricing the ram or similar equipment. Go to Fry's, Microcenter, or some other store and you will see the prices I listed or much higher.

    ------

    Regardless you seem to be missing the point, the original poster I was responding to was saying i7 was only 25 dollars higher, and I said that was wrong for you have to figure in the platform costs.
    Reply
  • PrezWeezy - Friday, January 09, 2009 - link

    You were right, I had forgotten about the new socket and DD3. Even so, using the parts Anandtech used, the i7 is about $187 more expensive than the PII (pun totally intended). The C2D with a Q9400 though is only $44 cheaper than the i7. Almost all of that has to do with the motherboards used here, and I'm sure you could find a combo of motherboard/CPU that would bring the price closer but that's besides the point. Reply
  • calyth - Thursday, January 08, 2009 - link

    "In theory, the AMD design made sense. If you were running a single threaded application, the core that your thread was active on would run at full speed, while the remaining three cores would run at a much lower speed. AMD included this functionality under the Cool 'n' Quiet umbrella. In practice however, Phenom's Cool 'n' Quiet was quite flawed. Vista has a nasty habit of bouncing threads around from one core to the next, which could result in the following phenomenon (no pun intended): when running a single-threaded application, the thread would run on a single core which would tell Vista that it needed to run at full speed. Vista would then move the thread to the next core, which was running at half-speed; now the thread is running on a core that's half the speed as the original core it started out on."

    Anand, read that sentence again.

    The problem isn't AMD designing a chip with broken CnQ. The problem is that Microsoft, after so many years, still can't write a scheduler. The problem persists on XP too. The thread that handles the mouse would rev up, causing the chip to switch p-state. Switching p-states takes time, and because of exclusive caching on AMD chips, when the scheduler puts the same thread on different cores, it causes the L1 & L2 to be ineffective.

    I have trouble in WinXP with CnQ on if I move my mouse, but not surprisingly, the same Phenom chip works like a chap in Linux. Because the scheduler isn't an idiot, and 1GHz is more than enough to handle mouse input.

    AMD erred in fixing a software problem in hardware. Independent p-states saved some power if only a single thread needed the speed.
    Reply
  • Zak - Thursday, January 08, 2009 - link

    Well, I hope AMD won't lose the momentum, because right now there isn't that much to celebrate: they've barely caught up with Intel's 2 years old CPU line:(

    Z.
    Reply

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