Contemporary Dual-Core Desktop Processors Shootout

The launch of Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Extreme processors inspired us to conduct detailed comparative testing of all dual-core CPUs. In this article you will find the latest data on the consumer features of Core 2 Duo, Pentium D and Athlon 64 X2 that have changed noticeably because of the new arrivals and price policy changes.

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
07/19/2006 | 02:27 PM

It is evident that the launch of Intel Core 2 Duo and Intel Core 2 Extreme processors has a very serious effect on the entire computer market. As we could already see, these processors set new performance records for high-end and mainstream PC systems. As a result, Intel earns the prestigious title of the today’s fastest x86 processors developer. Unfortunately, the AMD processors that used to be so popular among computer enthusiasts for quite some time, are being pushed back to the background turning into just a good solution for inexpensive systems. In order to retain the sales volumes, AMD undertook an unprecedented reduction of the pricing on their solutions. In other words, the new CPUs based on Intel Core microarchitecture stimulated rapid changes in the computer market.

 

Today we are going to track down all the changes that took place lately in order to get a clear vision of what is happening with the contemporary dual-core processors. Therefore, we will not only look at the CPU performance, but will also analyze other characteristics of the available solutions and try to estimate how attractive the new and old offerings from AMD and Intel are in the current situation.

Before we pass on to the actual results, we suggest that you take a look at our previous articles devoted to the new Intel Core microarchitecture that led to such dramatic changes in the computer market. These articles are:

Dual-Core Processors: Specifications

Intel CPUs

AMD CPUs

Testbed and Methods

We decided to include only those processor models into our today’s test session, that are up-to-date and available, i.e. those that are currently shipping into the market. It means that our today’s result charts and diagrams will not contain any data for Socket 939 systems from AMD that have now been replaced with faster solutions for Socket AM2 platform with DDR2 SDRAM support. Moreover, we also didn’t test the Athlon 64 X2 processors with the 2MB L2 cache that have been discontinued already. Also, you will not see the results for almost the entire Intel Pentium D 8XX processor line-up that has been discontinued. At this time only Pentium D 820 model is still shipping. The Pentium D 9XX processor family will be represented by only two models – the 945 and 915 that do not support Virtualization technology, because the rest of the processor family will stop shipping in the nearest future. Note that even though Intel has already stopped offering Pentium Extreme Edition 965 processor, we still included it into our today’s test session, because it is the fastest CPU with the previous-generation microarchitecture.

So, we ended up with the systems built using the following hardware components:

The tests were performed with the mainboard BIOS setup for maximum performance.

Performance

SYSMark 2004 SE: General Performance

Every CPU performance analysis conducted in our lab involves testing in SYSMark 2004 SE. the thing is that this benchmark is very good at revealing complex system performance under various types of typical workload. It emulates the user’s work on some tasks in a few widely spread applications involving multi-threaded processing. In the end this test generates a few numeric indexes illustrating the system performance in case of different work scenarios.

The best results belong to Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Extreme processors in digital content creation and processing tasks. As you can see from the diagrams above, even the mainstream Core 2 Duo E6600 processor model working at 2.4GHz clock speed outperforms all Athlon 64 X2 and Pentium D processors including their “extreme” modifications, such as Athlon 64 FX-62 and Pentium Extreme Edition 965. as for the performance of the top Core 2 Extreme X6800 processor, it outpaces Pentium Extreme Edition 965 by about 45%, and Athlon 64 FX-62 – by 25%.

Our test systems demonstrate pretty similar results in typical office applications as well. Core 2 Duo processor family is again faster than all the competitors. Any processor with Core microarchitecture and 2.4GHz+ clock speed is faster than any solutions on K8 or NetBurst microarchitecture under all types of workload.

Synthetic Benchmarks

Intel Core 2 Duo processors demonstrate pretty impressive performance in older but still popular single-threaded synthetic benchmarks. Here we should say that the shared L2 cache allows Core based processors to use the entire L2 cache memory in single-threaded applications, while Athlon 64 X2 and Pentium D processors can only have a half of it at their disposal.

The new 3DMark06 benchmark does support multi-threading, however, the previous generation CPUs cannot stand up to Core microarchitecture based solutions here, either. Core 2 Extreme X6800 appears 5.4% and 7% faster than Athlon 64 FX-62 and Pentium Extreme Edition 965 respectively. Note, however, that the relatively small performance difference between the two is mostly determined by the graphics subsystem that affects the overall result in this test. If we look at the CPU performance index here, the picture will be totally different.

I would like to stress that Athlon 64 FX-62 performs quite nicely here compared with the results of the other benchmarks. This processor working at 2.8GHz is slightly faster than Core 2 Duo E6600 working at 2.4GHz. However, it cannot compete with the top-of-the-line Core 2 Extreme X6800 that turns out almost 20% faster.

ScienceMark 2.0 makes the best out of AMD K8 microarchitecture advantages thanks to the active FPU usage. We have already pointed this out in our previous reviews. As a result, AMD processors look quite competitive in this test and are falling just a little bit behind Core 2 Duo models from the same price range. As for the performance of NetBurst based processors, they are beyond all criticism in ScienceMark 2.0, which you can clearly see from the diagram.

Gaming Applications

You remember that we have always recommended the solutions from Athlon 64 processor family as the best choice for gaming needs, and this conclusion was absolutely justified by the significant performance advantage we could see over Pentium 4 and Pentium D CPUs. Now the situation has changed dramatically. The new generation Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Extreme processors are on top of the charts when it comes to performance in most contemporary games. The top solution from AMD, Athlon 64 FX-62, gets defeated not only by Core 2 Extreme X6800, but even by less expensive models such as Core 2 Duo E6700 and Core 2 Duo E6600. As for the Pentium Extreme Edition 965, this previous generation CPU designed specifically for top gaming systems, turns out slower than even the youngest Core 2 Duo model – the E6300.

Audio and Video Encoding

Audio and video encoding tasks are a great illustration of effective processor performance. In fact, the CPU is the only component that affects the codecs performance: all other computer subsystems hardly have any influence on the performance in these tasks. However, despite the different type of workload we are looking at in this chapter, the situation we observe is exactly the same. Core 2 Duo processors are far ahead of all their rivals, leaving them not a single chance. In particular, the Core 2 Extreme X6800 is about 22% faster than Athlon 64 FX-62 during digital content encoding. The advantage of the new top processor from Intel over the previous-generation Pentium Extreme Edition 965 based on NetBurst architecture (that has actually been specifically optimized for work with streaming data) is even greater and equals 49%.

Image and Video Editing

We can hardly make any new conclusions from the Photoshop and Premiere results. The new microarchitecture once again proves the most efficient. Core 2 Duo E6600 and E6700, as well as Core 2 Extreme X6800 take the top three prizes in this race.

Archiving

The situation in WinRAR is hardly any different from what the other applications have already revealed to us. The only unexpected result is a relatively high performance of the Pentium Extreme Edition 965 processor that can process up to 4 streams of data at the same time thanks to its dual-core architecture and Hyper-Threading support, which will very soon sink into oblivion.

Professional OpenGL and Final Rendering

The new Core 2 Duo processors get a steady A+ for the final rendering and professional OpenGL tasks. In both types of applications the top processor models get very far ahead of their competitors.

Overclocking

We have already discussed overclocking in great detail in our article called Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 + ASUS P5W DH Deluxe: Ideal Mainstream Platform?. Therefore, today we are going to mostly touch upon the frequency potential of the top processor model on the Core microarchitecture – the Core 2 Extreme X6800. This processor features an unlocked clock frequency multiplier that is why it can be easily overclocked as far as the clock frequency potential of the new Conroe core will allow. So today we will finally be able to find out the maximum frequency this CPU can stably work at without hitting against the limitations set by the mainboard or the chipset.

Note that Core 2 Extreme X6800 that we had at our disposal features B1 core stepping. Since the mass production processors acquired B2 core stepping, we would expect the retail CPUs to have even higher overclocking potential. Nevertheless, the results we will obtain today will give us a great starting point for further analysis.

During our overclocking experiments we didn’t use any special cooling solutions. all tests were run with a popular Zalman CNPS9500 LED air-cooler.

First of all we decided to see how far we can go increasing the frequency without raising the processor Vcore. The nominal Vcore for our CPU was 1.3V.

Without any problems we got our CPU working stably with 12x clock frequency multiplier, which is one point over the nominal. With higher multiplier, the system would lose its reliable and stable operation, so further overclocking was done by raising the FSB frequency. The maximum rate our CPU worked stably at is given on a screenshot below:

So, Core 2 Extreme processor with the nominal frequency of 2.93GHz managed to hit 3.4GHz clock speed without raising the core voltage. This 16% increase over the nominal speed is a relatively good result for the top solution in the family.

However, it is definitely not the maximum. Numerous experiments suggest that 65nm Conroe core of Core based processors is very sensitive to voltage increase. Therefore, all further tests were conducted with the processor Vcore raised to 1.475V.

In this case we managed to increase the clock frequency multiplier to 13x, and the FSB frequency went as high as to 277MHz.

The processor frequency in this case reached 3.6GHz, which is 23% higher than the nominal rate. This way, we can conclude that not only the youngest processor models but also the top Core 2 Duo family member offers very good overclocking potential.

Note that there are some reports sharing even more impressive Core 2 Duo overclocking results achieved with air cooling. Of course, a lot depends on the actual CPU sample, however the performance level of the overclocked solution will definitely be unattainably high. Great overclocking potential of the Core based processors shouldn’t puzzle you. It is not only about Intel’s desire to leave some extra room for further processor models announcements within this new family. The peculiarities of new Core microarchitecture imply that they can design CPUs with different peak frequencies and different thermal requirements. So, if you forget about the maximum TDP of 65/75W and use high-quality cooling solution, Core 2 Duo overclocking may turn out more than fruitful.

Power Consumption

It is no secret for anyone that Intel engineers tried to design not only fast CPUs but also highly economical CPUs when they were working on the new Core microarchitecture. Therefore, they started active promotion of the “performance-per-watt’ concept long before the processor launch and they expect it to turn into the major criterion for processor consumer qualities evaluation very soon. That is why it is extremely interesting to look into the practical power consumption of the new processors and compare it to that of the previous-generation CPUs based on older microarchitecture.

As always, we used a special S&M utility to measure the maximum power consumption (you can download this utility here). We measured the current that goes through the CPU power circuitry. So, the numbers given below do not take into account the efficiency of the CPU voltage regulator laid out on the mainboard.

First of all, we measured the processors power consumption in idle mode. Cool’n’Quiet and Intel Enhanced SpeedStep power saving technologies were disabled in this test.

The results are very diverse, as you can see, which is probably caused by too different processor models participating. However, generally speaking, Core 2 Duo processors can really boast the most economical performance in idle mode.

Now let’s take a look at much more interesting results obtained when our CPUs were loaded to the full extent.

Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Extreme processors impressed us with their low level of power consumption. These processors are truly ahead of their competitors from the power consumption standpoint. The top Core 2 Extreme X6800 with the clock speed of 2.93GHz consumes even less power than Pentium D 915 and Athlon 64 X2 3800+. And if we compare the power consumption of this CPU with that of the same type processors such as Athlon 64 FX-62 or Pentium Extreme Edition 965, then the difference will be almost twofold.

In other words, Intel processors on Core microarchitecture are not only unprecedentedly fast but also impressively economical. So far they have no real competitors here. However, we have to stress that we haven’t yet finished testing the Energy Efficient AMD processors that are about to start selling fairly soon. Hopefully, they will get close to Core 2 Duo solutions from the power consumption standpoint.

Integral Characteristics of the Dual-Core Processors

We would like to conclude our analysis of the new Intel processors performance and the comparison of their features with those of other currently available dual-core CPUs with a detailed discussion of those features and parameters that are indirectly connected with the performance rate, but still influence the attractiveness of the product for the end user.

First of all, we decided to put together an “average” performance chart for our testing participants. We calculated this parameter as geometric mean of all normalized results obtained during this test session. Note that we have seen pretty much the same performance correlation between CPUs based on different architectures such as Intel Core, Intel NetBurst and AMD K8. Therefore, the integral value given on this chart describes very well the average performance of our testing participants in the majority of applications.

The chart once again indicates the superior performance of the new CPUs that are far ahead of their competitors. Athlon 64 Fx-62, for instance, can only compete with Core 2 Duo E6600, while Pentium Extreme Edition 965 cannot catch up even with Core 2 Duo E6400. From the performance prospective, Core 2 Extreme X6800, Core 2 Duo E6700 and Core 2 Duo E6600 on Intel Core microarchitecture win the first three prizes.

However, performance is not the only thing that makes this or that CPU an attractive purchase for the end-user. Another important consumer characteristic is the price. The official Core 2 Duo launch provoked serious changes in the market: the prices on CPUs with other microarchitectures collapsed enormously. Intel and AMD, both declared massive price reductions, so that the already existing products could still remain wanted against the background of remarkable Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Extreme. The new prices that will be effective in the end of this month are given on the chart below:

As we can see from this chart, AMD shifted their Athlon 64 X2 into the mainstream segment, and Intel repositioned their Pentium D as a value dual-core solution.

To better illustrate the new pricing policies we would like to offer you a chart showing the processor prices alongside with their average performance level.

As we see, AMD and Intel did a very good job on reforming their price policies. If we disregard the image solutions, Pentium Extreme Edition 965 and Athlon 64 FX-62, all the dots on this chart will fit into almost the same curve. It means that any of the dual-core processors has a justified price-to-performance ratio as of today. In other words, it means that the price of the processor corresponds very well to its actual performance, no matter what dual-core CPU we consider.

However, more in-depth data analysis suggests that AMD processors are still a little bit overpriced. There is a more expensive Core 2 Duo processor with much higher level of performance for each AMD Athlon 64 X2 starting with the 4200+ model. However, the fact that contemporary CPUs on Core microarchitecture require more expensive LGA775 platform may actually make up for the AMD’s pricing.

Now that we have paid due attention to the performance and pricing of our testing participants, let’s check out the “performance per watt” ratio, especially since Intel has been so excited about this particular concept.

I don’t think you need any additional comments here. Core 2 Duo processors combine high performance and low power consumption. Pentium D processors, on the contrary, feature low performance and relatively high power consumption. Athlon 64 X2 are still in the intermediate position, although we wouldn’t regard this result as a final statement just yet. The picture will most likely change when the Energy Efficient AMD processors get into the mass market.

In conclusion, I would like to offer you one more chart showing the performance per GHz ratio:

It is not just a beautiful picture. It shows empirical correlation between the frequencies of CPUs from different processor families that provide similar levels of performance. Thus, to achieve the performance level of a Core 2 Duo processor, AMD Athlon 64 has to work at about 20% faster clock speed, and the Pentium D processor has to run at about 90% faster clock speed. This ratio allows us not only to estimate the approximate relative performance of contemporary CPUs, but also to get a better idea of what new models will be eventually coming out in the Core 2 Duo and Athlon 64 X2 processor families.

Conclusion

In fact, we have already made all the most important conclusions about the performance, pricing and power consumption of the contemporary dual-core CPUs in the previous section. I would only like to say once again that Intel really did a great job with these processors on Core microarchitecture. They offer remarkable performance and hence take over the leadership in the high-end processor market.

However, the Conroe launch doesn’t at all mean that AMD lost this battle. This company managed to rebuild the structure of its offers so that they could fit into the market in these circumstances. Yes, AMD let Intel take the high-end market, however they adjusted the prices on their solutions in such a way that they still remained very attractive mainstream offers. Keeping in mind the upcoming transition of all Athlon 64 X2 processors into the Energy Efficient category and the reduction of their TDP to 65W, AMD solutions may prove up to the mark from the power consumption standpoint. However, this statement needs to be double-checked, which we will do in our upcoming testing.

I have to say that the Pentium D processor family that has lost quite a few of its members will still remain in demand. Despite the high heat dissipation and power consumption of the models in this family, they will still be a good choice for inexpensive systems. So, you shouldn’t give up on these processors.

In other words, although the launch of Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Extreme is certainly a new stage in the evolution of x86 processors, it is still too early to proclaim Intel’s complete victory over AMD. Both companies will continue coexisting in the market. Although AMD will have to temporarily give away the high-performance segment and focus mostly on the mainstream and value solutions.