The Phenom II X4 810 & X3 720: AMD Gets DDR3 But Doesn't Need Itby Anand Lal Shimpi on February 9, 2009 12:00 AM EST
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When AMD launched the Phenom II X4 940 and 920 I called it a True Return to Competition. With the rest of the lineup now more fleshed out, it's truly a return to competition. At every price point that AMD targets, it has produced a CPU competitive to Intel's offerings.
These new CPUs from AMD are good overclockers, good performers and they don't have any real drawbacks unlike their predecessors. The most interesting CPU is the Phenom II X3 720; at $145 its only Intel competitors are the Core 2 Duo E7500 and the Core 2 Duo E8400, both of which are dual-core CPUs. The extra core in the 720 can provide a clear advantage in well threaded workloads, not to mention that it's got 1.5MB of L2 cache and 6MB of L3 cache at its disposal. In applications where the third core isn't very useful then the 720 loses its performance advantage, which I suspect will be the majority of mainstream workloads.
The DDR3 question is easily answered: wait. While DDR2 isn't an option for Core i7, on all other platforms it just makes sense simply because of the high cost of DDR3 right now. By the end of the year we won't be having this debate as DDR2/DDR3 will be at the same price, but if you're building today don't even bother looking at DDR3 unless you're building Core i7. The performance benefits aren't worth it for Phenom II, so while AM3 sounds cool, it's not necessary today. Thankfully AM3 CPUs will work in AM2+ motherboards, so you aren't forced into a relationship with DDR3 if you're not ready.
On the CPU side, what we end up with is a buyer's market with tons of choices. At the high end, if you can manage, the Core i7 is simply in a league of its own. Honestly, if I were spending close to $300 on a CPU today I'd do my best to make up for the differences in platform costs and go with an i7 over any Core 2 or Phenom II alternative.
At the low $200 price point you have the Phenom II X4 940 vs. the Core 2 Quad Q9400 once again. The 940 wins in the vast majority of cases and gets the nod at $225. The Phenom II X4 920 isn't as clear cut of a winner, as it competes with the Q8300 or the Q9400 depending on whether you want to spend slightly less or slightly more. Against the Q9400 it loses, against the Q8300 it should be a closer call. At $195 I'd call the decision torn, but I'd lean towards Intel. The same is true about the Phenom II X4 810, it actually does a lot better than I expected it would given the reduction in cache size and at $175 it is competitive with the Q8200. The strongest showing in today's introduction seems to be the Phenom II X3 720. If you do any amount of offline 3D rendering work or use any other heavily threaded apps, you'll appreciate the third core, although in most other applications the E7500/E8400 are competitive despite only being dual-core parts.
Long term this strategy can't work for AMD. Intel can make 3 E7500s in the space that AMD makes a single Phenom II X3 720; the pricing pressure is great for the consumer, but again, I'm not sure how great it is for AMD in the long run.
Other than the clear cut i7 recommendation at the high end, thanks to aggressive price cuts and competitive CPUs, you can actually have your pick of which side you want to go with here. I'd say what it really boils down to is who can deliver the best retail pricing on CPUs and motherboards. Overclockers will probably prefer the Intel route as both Phenom II and Core 2 can overclock to similar levels, but Core 2 is faster at the same clock speed. Intel does have more room to drive prices down if it should so desire and perhaps it will, although I do worry about what will happen to AMD's Phenom II strategy when Core i5 arrives later this year. While Phenom II is competitive with Core 2, remember that it's an old architecture now. Turn to the Core i7 results for where AMD will need to start looking come this fall...