The Intel Core i7 processor may be priced high enough to be beyond the reach of most PC users, but the platform has helped to bring down the price of DDR3 memory from ludicrous levels to a cost-per-gigabyte that’s on par with good quality DDR2.
This also makes AMD’s socket AM3 platform a far more tempting buy, since for the price of an Intel i7 920 with a motherboard you can buy the fastest quad-core Phenom II, plus a top-notch board as well as the necessary RAM.
Here we are looking at AMD’s new flagship, the Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition. Built with the same manufacturing process as its 955 predecessor, the chip is architecturally identical to other 45nm Phenom II X4 chips but its clock frequency has been upped to 3.4GHz. This means it has 2MB of L2 cache, 6MB of unified L3 cache and a memory controller compatible with both AM3 (DDR3) and AM2+ (DDR2) motherboards.
Priced at around £178, the 965 is directly competing with Intel’s Core 2 Quad Q9550; a chip which, despite its age, has been fast enough to happily rout all previous AMD processors. With this latest speed boost we can report that the Phenom II has finally left the Socket 775 competition behind it, with resolute performance which is considerably higher than its Intel nemesis in most tests.
Our video encoding and file compression tests were between 15 and 20 percent faster on the Phenom II compared to the Q9550, whilst its gaming performance in Crysis Warhead, GTA IV and Hawx was also superior. Photoshop, Sysmark 2007 and FarCry 2 still favoured Intel chips, but this time the difference in each was a hardly-consequential 1-2 percent.
When considering a new processor, it’s important to look beyond the chip and to judge the platform as a whole. Socket 775 has served for many years as Intel’s mainstream solution and despite a solid innings we think it’s time for shoppers to look elsewhere. No more socket 775 chips are set for release, but AMD’s socket AM3 is still set for several incremental speed boosts.
The Phenom II X4 also enjoys overclocking every bit as much as Intel’s finest, with our particular example hitting a comfortable 4GHz without anything more exotic than a small hike in the VCore voltage and an Arctic Cooling Freezer Extreme heat sink. At this speed it performs similarly to a Core i7 and well beyond the capabilities of even a maxed-out Core 2 Quad.
Overclocking is further helped by completely unlocked multipliers and a handy application that lets you dabble with clock speeds on the fly. Although this technology is nothing new, AMD’s solution is easily the most robust and stable implementation of Windows-based overclocking we have seen.
Despite all of these strengths the Phenom II X4 965 is not without its caveats. A thermal TDP of an eyebrow-raising 140W rules it out for low-power rigs and also compromises compatibility with several AM2+ motherboards. It’s also high time AMD put more pressure on its board partners to ship their motherboards with updated BIOS software, as a couple of our brand new AM2+ boards refused to cooperate with the chip until we used an older processor to update them to the latest firmware revision.
Another hurdle just around the corner for AMD’s already precarious bank balance is Intel’s Core i5 processor. If pre-release numbers are to believed, this i7-based technology should have no problem strolling past even the fastest Phenom II X4 and, providing Intel can keep board costs at sensible levels, it will again make AMD technology an also-ran.
Nevertheless, if you need a fast and upgradable computer right now, the Phenom II X4 is the best mainstream solution out there. This latest speed bump only serves to cement its position as a fast and upgradable platform and proves you once again don’t need “Intel Inside” for serious enthusiast-grade performance.
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