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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  • rudolphna - Thursday, January 08, 2009 - link

    Hey anand, do you think you could grill AMD and see if you can get out of them which chips will be made at the upcoming Malta, NY fab facility? Will it be PII or maybe bulldozer? Reply
  • mkruer - Thursday, January 08, 2009 - link

    Anand, I do alot of paring and although the recovery rate is good, i would like to see the results for creating a par2 file. Reply
  • Natfly - Thursday, January 08, 2009 - link

    I'm glad AMD is somewhat competitive in the quad core realm but I just cannot get over how blindingly fast the Core i7s are. It is incredible.

    I hope AMD can make it through, for consumer's (and my stock's) sake. This is a step in the right direction.
    Reply
  • xusaphiss - Thursday, January 08, 2009 - link

    Come on, guys! I like a competitive market as much as the next guy but AMD is a whole generation behind. They should have had these when the 45nm C2s came out!

    AMD is lapped!

    It's time for them to die!

    CPU standards will only go down if they actually resort to third-party distribution!

    Their video cards are always run hotter than NVIDIA and just less stable and overclockable. The only way they was able to stay alive in the race was pitting two of their GPUs against one on one board. NVIDIA hasn't even begun using DDR5 yet!

    Intel and NVIDIA is not really receiving competition from AMD. AMD is just lowering standards.

    Reply
  • ThePooBurner - Saturday, January 10, 2009 - link

    PLAYSTATION THREE is that you? Reply
  • aeternitas - Thursday, January 08, 2009 - link

    We would not of had C2D for years, if not for AMD. Please sit down your logic is flawed. Reply
  • Kroneborge - Thursday, January 08, 2009 - link

    Oh, let's hope AMD doesn't die. Or you can add a couple hundred on to the price of all your favorite Intel processors lol. Reply
  • Genx87 - Thursday, January 08, 2009 - link

    This one is simply not going to cut the butter by the middle of 09. True they are cutting into the Core 2 Duo's performance advantage. It still for the most part falls short. And I didnt see this thing really challange the i7 which will be Intels flagship chip by the end of 09. I dont know about AMD's future chips. But the Phenom needs an arch replacement for AMD to compete with Intel. Reply
  • JakeAMD - Thursday, January 08, 2009 - link

    I would suggest an amazing PC experience is about far more than benchmarks or the performance of one component. Some benchmarks today are at risk of losing relevance to real application performance. For example, performance on 3DMark Vantage scores don’t necessarily translate into a better gaming performance. Also, the CPU-only approach to video processing performance is now thoroughly outmoded, as that should be offloaded to the GPU. The Dragon platform technology is really within the budgets people are affording themselves today and we’re doing a better job of serving the real needs of the PC market today. So I would ask you – Is $1000 or more worth the performance difference?
    Reply
  • Genx87 - Friday, January 09, 2009 - link

    I am looking at these gaming benchmarks which is the most intensive thing I do on my computer. My 180 dollar E8400 is cheaper and faster.

    On the server side the i7 looks more attractive for my virtualization and sql server upgrade project. Where $1000 is pennies on the dollar. Though when you factor in total system cost it is usually not even that much.

    Anyways the i7 will come down in price over the course of 09 as a consumer friendly platform is released and the cost of DDR3 falls as production ramps. So it wont cost 1000 more for an i7 system for long. And I question whether an i7 system costs that much more now.

    Reply

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