Hot on the heels of Intel's Penryn comes the first consumer-targeted quad-core CPU from AMD. We've tested AMD's Phenom, taking a close look at the 2.4GHz AMD Phenom 9700.
The IT industry has always been about trying to tempt customers today with the technology of tomorrow. And nowhere has this been more the case than in the processors market. For the last year our charts have been populated by Intel's quad-core CPUs.
But as we're almost tired of repeating, the amount (or rather lack) of available software that takes real advantage of this technology simply doesn't justify the prudent consumer grabbing four cores with both hands. But it will. And it will because everybody's counting on it. The list of interested parties no longer consists entirely of Intel because, hot on the heels of Intel's Penryn comes the first consumer-targeted quad-core CPU from AMD.
Indeed, AMD's new Phenom is more quad-core than quad-core has ever been. That's because Intel's solution has always involved something of a fix – to be precise, it's consisted of two dual-core chips joined at the hip. In the case of the AMD Phenom though, you get four separate cores, all of which can make use of an integrated memory controller.
In contrast, the Intel cores have to use a limited frontside bus (FSB) to get access to the main memory – a far messier and less efficient way of doing things.
This, though, isn't necessarily game set and match to AMD. Indeed, because Intel's method has proven much less time-consuming, it's been able to get the technology into the open in double quick time – hence the reason why AMD is only now joining the quad-core party.
And the reduced size of the dual-core is potentially a much smaller manufacturing process – while Intel can make use of a slim and compact 45nm process, the Phenoms are stuck at an oversized 65nm – which means that it costs less to produce the chips, and also that more processors survive the tough testing schedule and make it through to shop floors.
AMD does have a few extra tricks up its sleeve. Thanks to the Cool'n'Quiet and CoolCore feaures, the processor can vary the speed of the cores depending on how much work needs to be performed, and unused parts can effectively be turned off.
And AMD has always made a point of saying that its future chips will be compatible with older PCs, and so you can use the Phenom on many AM2 motherboards. To get the most out of the new features, though, you're going to need a motherboard that works with the newly released AM2+.
Initially, two different versions of the Phenom (the 2GHz 9500 and the 2.2GHz 9600) will be available to buy. Prices on these appear to be around £170 and £185 respectively. The processor that we have tested here, the 2.4GHz Phenom 9700, will arrive early in the new year and should cost around £210-£230 online.
NEXT PAGE: test results and expert verdict > >
AMD started the year comfortably destroying the existing Intel chips. The arrival of the Core 2 Duo, obviously, reversed that situation. So will Phenom turn the tables once again? Well, to find out we took a Phenom 9700 system with 2GB of RAM and a Radeon 3870 graphics card. We then put the same 3870 card into the Mesh G92 Pulse Pro and compared the two. A Phenom 9700 system will probably cost around £40-£50 more to put together than a system based on the Core 2 Duo E6850, so we would expect the Phenom to win this contest. The results, however, were far from rosy.
While the Mesh hit 112 points in our WorldBench suite, the Phenom system struggled to just 102. On this showing, the 9700, despite being one of the fastest of AMD's new chips, will struggle to compete even with the slightly old-hat E6600s (both dual- and quad-core).
The AMD did score a victory of sorts in CineBench, completing the multi-core rendering tests at a speed of 2.46 times rather than the Intel's 1.93. However, given that the Phenom has twice as many cores, the lead isn't that great. We set the Penryn system to work on the same tests, and it finished them at a speed of 3.24 times – considerably faster than the Phenom.
In the games tests, the Phenom showed only about 76-82% of the performance of the Intel in FEAR, while in the more demanding World In Conflict, this dropped to 72-75%. Incidentally, the high-end Penryn processor (in a 2GB rather than 4GB system) was almost twice as fast as the AMD PC in World In Conflict.
Given that the 9700 is a fairly high-end version of the Phenom, its performance scores are disappointing. At the very least, it should be beating the likes of the E6600s and E6700s. Based on its scores notched up against the E6850, it'll be unable to do that. AMD is now paying the price for bringing out its first quad-core product almost a year after Intel. The latter has dramatically reduced the size of its chips and, in all honesty, it's hard to see how AMD can grab the initiative back. Consumers need the competition, so let's hope that the Phenom range can pull a remarkably well hidden rabbit from inside a sadly rather unpromising hat.