by Ilya Gavrichenkov
11/18/2010 | 12:00 AM
If you are following our reviews, you know that as we are approaching the holiday sales season, we decided a massive comparative testing of all currently available processor might come in very handy. The first article talking about the obtained results was posted a few days ago and discussed sub-$100 CPUs, i.e. the processors from the Value market segment. And as our tests showed, despite the existing stereotypes, inexpensive processors can perform at a very decent level and in most cases can become a good basis for a contemporary platform. A system with an inexpensive CPU inside can undoubtedly deliver sufficient performance for the majority of popular home and office applications and can even become a good entry-level gaming system.
However, if you are going to use your computer for more resource-hungry tasks, like audio and video processing, scientific calculations or image rendering in CAD systems, the computational capacity of a Value CPU may be insufficient. Gaming fans who are following the gaming market carefully and care for high-quality 3D experience, should also consider buying a more expensive processor. Our second article is aimed at these particular users and it is going to talk about mainstream processors, which price starts at $100.
As for the maximum price in the mainstream segment, it is usually very easy to set. Both leading CPU makers believe that the mainstream segment currently ends at $200 and we agree with them. It is a known fact that as the processor price increases, their price-to-performance ratio becomes considerably smaller. For example, value processors offer about 1.5 times higher return on investment than mainstream CPUs priced between $100 and $200. As soon as you pass the $200 bar the price-to-performance ration drops dramatically, so while the prices on the tags increase rapidly, the performance improvement you get as a result of additional financial investment turns out not as noticeable as it was before. This is exactly why the $100-$200 price range is considered mainstream – the CPUs in this price range are selling at quite acceptable price, which is totally justified by their performance.
And don’t think that we cut off the mainstream price segment at a very low maximum. This is the reality: price wars between AMD and Intel that have been going on for a few years now result in lower CPU costs. And the only winner in this war is definitely the consumer: not only quad-core, but also six-core processors working at rather high clock speeds in contemporary platforms are currently available within the affordable $200 price range. Therefore, CPUs priced between $100 and $200 are currently one of the most popular choices when it comes to building a universal home PC. And AMD as well as Intel offer so many different processor models within this segment, that we will be discussing as many as nineteen CPUs within our today’s article.
AMD experiences quite explicable difficulties with the production of high-performance processors, because they do not have any new-generation microarchitectures available to them. That is why they do not offer that many options in the mainstream segment. Moreover, AMD’s mainstream processors are based on the same microarchitecture as their Value products and are manufactured using the same 45 nm process. Therefore, it is not surprising that all value and mainstream solutions from AMD are positioned for the same exact platform – Socket AM3. The peculiarity of this platform is dual-channel DDR3 SDRAM support. Moreover, all AMD processors can clock the memory at up to 1600 MHz frequency, even though this feature may not be highlighted by the manufacturer.
The differences between AMD products for different price segments lie primarily in the number of computational cores. The company offers dual- and triple-core processors in the lower price segment, while in the mainstream segment we see CPUs with four and six cores.
Athlon II X4. This processor family includes low-cost quad-core products. The junior model from this family may be formally considered a value CPU, as it is priced at $100. The main drawback of Athlon II X4 processors that separates them from Phenom II series is the absence of L3 cache memory and a relatively small L2 cache, which is only 512 KB per core. Luckily, these processors have good clock speeds: the current models work at 3.0-3.1 GHz.
Phenom II X2. This is another “border” processor family that may be placed in the mainstream as well as value segment. It includes dual-core CPUs that are very similar to quad-core Phenom II X4 processors in their primary features (they are even based on the same semiconductor dies with two disabled cores out of four). To be more exact, Phenom II X2 have a 6 MB shared L3 cache in addition to 512 KB L2 cache per core. Moreover, all Phenom II X2 processors belong to the Black Edition category, which means that they can be overclocked by adjusting their clock multiplier. The nominal clock frequency of the Phenom II X2 560 CPU model that falls into the mainstream price range is 3.3 GHz.
Phenom II X4. Quad-core processors are AMD’s primary force in the mainstream segment. These CPUs work at pretty high clock frequencies of 3.2-3.5 GHz and have an unlocked multiplier, so you can easily increase their frequency beyond the default rates. Phenom II X4 processors have a total of 8 MB cache memory: 6 MB of shared L3 cache and the rest is split into equal 512-KB L2 cache portions per core. Note that since Phenom II X4 have four pretty fast cores, they have comparatively high power consumption and heat dissipation, so you may need to make sure that you use advanced cooling systems and that your mainboard has reinforced voltage regulator circuitry.
Phenom II X6. One of AMD’s six-core processors, Phenom II X6 1055T, has become a mainstream CPU after several recent price drops. This is a unique solution, because you won’t find any other six-core processors for less than $200. At the same time, this processor works at a decent clock speed of 2.8 GHz. However, you shouldn’t forget about Turbo Core technology that AMD added to all their six-core CPU models. As a result, Phenom II X6 1055T will automatically overclock to 3.3 GHz if only three cores or less are utilized. As for the cache-memory size, it is typical of Phenom II models in AMD’s six-core processors. Each core has a 512 KB L2 cache and they all share a 6 MB L3 cache.
All in all, Socket AM3 platform in the mainstream segment looks quite appealing, even though there are not that many CPU modifications available at this time. However, the mainboard makers undoubtedly make up for this limited CPU variety, as they offer a significant number of various Socket AM3 solutions that allow building systems with vast functionality. For example, you can use a mainstream AMD processor to build a system with powerful graphics including two graphics accelerators working as PCI Express x16 + x16. As a result, even with a mainstream CPU inside a Socket AM3 platform may as well become a high-performance gaming system, especially since these processors prove to be very good in games.
The future looks quite promising for Socket AM3 platform also in the long-term prospective. It won’t start stepping down before the end of next year, and until them AMD will continue to gradually increase the potential of their Socket AM3 processors. It means that you will be able to easily upgrade the Socket AM3 platform later on. The only problem in this case is that the processor performance will hardly be increased substantially. The best Socket AM3 fans could expect would be a six-core processor based on the same existing microarchitecture with no more than 3.4 GHz clock frequency, or a quad-core CPU at 3.8 GHz.
The table below shows detailed specifications of all mainstream processors from AMD that took part in our today’s test session:
Intel offers much more processors in the mainstream segment. Besides, they do not stick to only one platform in this price range, but at the same time offer LGA775 and LGA1156 CPUs with principally different microarchitecture.
However, LGA775 platform is already regarded as some kind of vestige of the past, which is kept alive only to get rid of the existing stock. Nevertheless, LGA775 processors sell pretty well for two reasons: first, there are still a lot of systems supporting them; and second, the mainboards for this platform are fairly cheap. There are several modifications of LGA775 processors in the $100-$200 price range, all using the same 45 nm semiconductor die.
Core 2 Duo. These are dual-core processors working at 2.93-3.16 GHz with a shared L2 cache 3 or 6 MB in size. Core 2 Duo use 266 or 333 MHz system bus, so you can use memory working at 1067 or 1333 MHz frequency. Note that the specifications of different Core 2 Duo processor models may differ dramatically. Therefore, the higher-end E8000 series with more advanced features costs considerably more than junior models from the E7000 lineup. However, the difference in performance is indeed noticeable, especially in applications working with large amounts of data.
Core 2 Quad. Quad-core processors in LGA775 form-factor are a combination of two dual-core semiconductor dies sealed inside the same processor packaging. However, Intel adds more differentiation to the family by disabling part of their L2 cache. As a result, there are two processor groups: more affordable ones that fall into the sub-$200 price range and more expensive ones. The part of Core 2 Quad family that we will be discussing today includes processors with 4 or 6 MB L2 cache. So, this cache is physically located on two dies and each half of it is split between the corresponding pair of cores. The clock frequencies of the CPU models that fall into the mainstream price range vary from 2.66 to 2.83 GHz. All Core 2 Quad models support 133 MHz bus.
Frankly speaking, we do not recommend going with the LGA775 platform if you are building a new system. First of all, the platform promotes obviously outdated structure, when the memory controller is inside the chipset rather than the CPU. As a result, there may be additional delays when working with the memory subsystem and in the end it affects the overall system performance quite noticeably. Secondly, LGA775 processors are in most cases slower than LGA1156 CPUs, which are currently very versatile. In fact, the only reason why you may be interested in LGA775 is the availability of very inexpensive Core 2 Quad processors with four computational cores. There are currently no direct competitors for these CPUs among LGA1156 models.
The future of the LGA775 platform doesn’t look too good either. There haven’t been any new processors in this form-factor for quite some time now. Moreover, even the existing models may soon be taken off the price-list and will sink into oblivion. All this means that upgrading a CPU in an LGA775 system may soon become virtually impossible and will result into a complete replacement of the entire platform.
The relatively young LGA1156 platform seems to be much more appealing. Intel currently has several modifications of both: dual- as well as quad-core processors for this platform. All of them are based on Nehalem microarchitecture. Among the major peculiarities of this microarchitecture I would like to point out higher CPU performance, shared L3 cache, integrated memory controller and Hyper-Threading technology support, which presents each physical CPU core to the system as two virtual cores. Moreover, some LGA1156 processors also have an integrated graphics core that can be utilized on Intel H57/H55 based mainboards.
Core i3-500. These are dual-core processors based on a 32 nm semiconductor die that also contain a second additional die – a graphics core. The operating system sees processors like that as quad-core, because they support Hyper-Threading, so that each their core can process two computational threads at the same time. Core i3 processor frequencies fall into the interval from 2.93 to 3.33 GHz. They have a 4 MB L3 cache. The memory controller integrated into the processor supports DDR3 SDRAM with 1067 or 1333 MHz frequency.
Core i5-600. This is another dual-core processor family that has very few differences from the Core i3 the most important one being Turbo Boost technology support. The idea behind this technology implies automatic CPU overclocking (pretty significantly) when only part of the CPU is utilized (in this case one core out of two). Besides, Core i5-600 processors support AES – a set of specific cryptographic instructions, which is disabled in Core i3. The nominal frequencies of the Core i5-600 processor family stretch from 3.2 to 3.6 GHz, however, only models working at up to 3.33 GHz clock speed fall into the mainstream segment we are talking about today. All other specifications of the Core i5-600 processors are exactly the same as those of Core i3-500: Hyper-Threading technology support, 4 MB L3 cache, integrated memory controller supporting DDR3-1067 and DDR3-1333, graphics core integrated into the same CPU packaging.
Core i5-700. This LGA1156 processor family stands a little aside, because these processors use a slightly different 45 nm die with four “real” CPU cores and their price is approaching $200 maximum. According to our criteria, only one CPU from this family could participate in our today’s test session: a less expensive Core i5-750 working at 2.66 GHz frequency. This CPU supports Turbo Boost technology, but Hyper-Threading doesn’t work in it. As a result, the operating system sees it as a quad-core processor, just like it sees Core i5-600. Core i5-700 has an 8 MB L3 cache, and the integrated memory controller is designed to support dual-channel DDR3-1067 and DDR3-1333 SDRAM. I have to say that unlike other Core i5 processor models, the 700 series CPUs do not have an integrated graphics core.
Despite the fact that LGA1156 platform is very mainstream these days, it is not free from several issues. Although Intel offers pretty fast processors for this platform, the multi-GPU configurations built in LGA1156 systems will only work as PCI Express x8 + x8. Therefore, many hardcore gamers are not very excited about this platform. The second drawback of LGA1156 is relatively short anticipated life span of the platform. Although it is less than one year old, in two months Intel is going to introduce LGA1155 platform that should replace LGA1156. It means that we shouldn’t expect any new LGA1156 processors to come out, and the current models will soon be discontinued and vanish from the store shelves.
Let’s sum everything up in the following table listing the detailed specs of all current mainstream Intel processors:
Simultaneous testing of a large number of processors is a pretty complicated task that not only takes a lot of time and effort, but also requires access to dozens of different processor models at the same time. Therefore, most results databases available online are either updated over a large period of time, which causes the testbed configuration, drivers and applications versions to change accordingly, or have the results obtained on the same old platform that hasn’t been updated for a while. We did our best to avoid any of these problems – all our tests are current and have been performed at the same time for all CPUs. We used only the latest hardware components with the most recent BIOS and driver versions as well as the operating system with all available updates.
Here is the list of hardware and software components we used for our today’s test session:
To estimate the processors performance in general-purpose apps we use SYSmark 2007 test that emulates usage models in popular office and digital content creation and processing applications. The idea of this benchmark is very simple: it produces a single score that characterizes average system performance.
LGA1156 platform is an indisputable leader in this test. Dual- and quad-core Core i3 and Core i5 LGA1156 processors take over the entire upper part of the diagram stressing the advantages of contemporary Intel’s microarchitecture. By the way, note that there is very little performance difference between quad-core and dual-core Core i5 processors, which indicates how effective Hyper-Threading technology actually is, as in this case it successfully replaces physical cores with the virtual ones.
As far as other platforms are concerned, Socket AM3 processors from the Phenom II family outperform almost all LGA775 competitors, but at the same time cam only compete against the junior and medium-ranked Core i3 CPUs. The low-cost quad-core Athlon II X4 processors appear to be the outsiders in this test, as they yield even to Core 2 Quad and Core 2 Duo solutions.
The table below contains the detailed scores from the SYSmark 2007 suite sorted according to the application type:
As you know, it is the graphics subsystem that determines the performance of the entire platform equipped with pretty high-speed processors (which certainly are the products discussed in this article) in the majority of contemporary games. Therefore, we do our best to make sure that the graphics card is not loaded too heavily during the test session: all tests are performed without antialiasing and in far not the highest screen resolutions. In other words, obtained results allow us to analyze not that much the fps rate that can be achieved in systems equipped with contemporary graphics accelerators, but rather how well contemporary processors can cope with gaming workload. Therefore, the results help us determine how the tested CPUs will behave in the nearest future, when new graphics card generations will be widely available.
Judging by the gaming test results, we can single out Core i7-750 and the entire Phenom II X4 family. These quad-core processors maintain the leadership under any type of gaming load, which means that they would be the best choice for a gaming system. The six-core Phenom II X6 1055T also looks good against the competitors’ background. Its Turbo Core technology proves highly efficient, making this processor perform really fast even when we do not need all its six cores at the same time. However, keeping in mind the price of this six-core CPU, we wouldn’t recommend purchasing it for a gaming system.
Taking into account the pricing, we would like to point out Athlon II X4 CPUs. Although they do not have an L3 cache, they prove to be stably in the middle of the pack at all times. However, dual-core processors like Core 2 Duo or Phenom II X2 won’t suit for contemporary gaming needs. As we can see from the obtained results, multi-core processors or at least dual-core CPUs with Hyper-Threading technology seem to suit better for the applications of this type.
To test the processors performance during data archiving we resort to WinRAR archiving utility. Using maximum compression rate we archive a folder with multiple files 560 MB in total size.
System performance in WinRAR may be affected by many things: clock frequency, number of cores, cache-memory size… However, it is very likely that it is the cache-memory that plays the ultimate role in this case. For example, Core i5-750 with an 8 MB L3 cache retains the leadership and is closely followed by quad- and six-core AMD processors featuring 6 MB L3 cache.
The processor performance during encryption is measured with an integrated benchmark from a popular cryptographic utility called TrueCrypt. I have to say that it can not only effectively utilize any number of processor cores, but also supports special AES instructions.
Encryption is a process that can be well paralleled, so no wonder that the six-core Phenom II X6 1055T is the winner here. Also, quad-core AMD processors performed very well here: they left behind all of Intel competitors including Core i5-600 CPUs supporting special AES instructions.
We measured the performance in Adobe Photoshop using our own benchmark made from Retouch Artists Photoshop Speed Test that has been creatively modified. It includes typical editing of four 10-megapixel images from a digital photo camera.
Intel processors work faster in Adobe Photoshop. And their advantage is so dramatic that the best competitor CPU, Phenom II X4 970, loses to all Core 2 Quad and Core i5 products.
We use Apple iTunes utility to test audio transcoding speed. It translates the contents of a CD disk into AAC format. Note that the typical peculiarity of this utility is its ability to utilize only a pair of processor cores.
Apple iTunes is another application that favors Intel processor architecture. As a result, AMD processors lose the entire thing here: even a 3.5 GHz Phenom II X4 970 can’t outperform those Intel CPUs that work at 3.0 GHz.
In order to measure how fast our testing participants can transcode a video into H.264 format we used x264 HD benchmark. It works with an original MPEG-2 video recorded in 720p resolution with 4 Mbps bitrate. I have to say that the results of this test are of great practical value, because the x264 codec is also part of numerous popular transcoding utilities, such as HandBrake, MeGUI, VirtualDub, etc.
Like any other task optimized for multi-core architectures, video transcoding works best on the unique six-core Phenom II X6 1055T CPU in the mainstream segment. Moreover, x264 codec is highly efficient on processors with K10 microarchitecture, so that even quad-core Phenom II and Athlon II processors can boast very good performance during video transcoding. In fact, only Intel Core i5-750 can actually compete against them in this price range: this processor is based on Nehalem microarchitecture and features four “real” physical cores.
The performance in Adobe Premiere Pro is determined by the time it takes to render a Blu-ray project with HDV 1080p25 video into H.264 format and apply different special effects to it.
In terms of quality, the video encoding speed in Adobe media Encoder is not too much different from what we have just seen with x264 codec. Summing everything up, I would like to stress that you can use Socket AM3 or LGA1156 processors with at least four cores for efficient work with media content.
We launch standard MathematicaMark7 test from Wolfram Mathematica suite to measure the systems’ performance here.
The best score belongs to Core i5-750 that has four cores with contemporary microarchitecture, high-performance memory controller and large L3 cache. This result is actually not surprising at all. What is really surprising, that there is a dual-core LGA775 processor right next to it on the chart.
We use special Cinebench test to measure the final rendering speed in Maxon Cinema 4D.
The more cores there are, the higher is the performance. This principle can be seen clearly in rendering tasks, so you shouldn’t be surprised to see six-core processors outperform quad-core one, and quad-cores – the dual-core ones. If we compare the performance of processors with the same number of computational cores, we will see that Socket AM3 and LGA1156 CPUs are always ahead of the LGA775 ones.
Rendering speed in Autodesk 3ds max 2011 with both, Scanline as well as Mental Ray, was measured using SPECapc test.
The relative rendering speed in 3ds max 2011 is very similar to the Cinebench results, although Intel processors perform obviously better here. As a result, Core i5-750 is almost as fast as the six-core AMD CPU, Core 2 Quad family competes successfully against Athlon II X4, and dual-core Phenom II X2 takes the last place.
Performance is not the only practical spec that may be of interest to potential buyers of mainstream CPUs. In many cases their power consumption matters a lot, as it has direct connection not only to the amount of your next power bill. The same parameter sets certain restrictions and criteria when it comes to picking out a system case. Therefore, we decided to add power consumption tests to our performance research.
The graphs below show the full power draw of the computer (without the monitor) measured after the power supply. It is the total of the power consumption of all the system components. The PSU's efficiency is not taken into account. The CPUs are loaded by running the 64-bit LinX 0.6.4 utility. We enabled all the power-saving technologies for a correct measurement of the computer's power draw in idle mode: C1E, AMD Cool'n'Quiet and Enhanced Intel SpeedStep.
All participating systems consume almost the same amount of power in idle mode: the difference between the best and the worst score is less than 10 W. Athlon II X4 based platforms require a little less power. However, the six-core Phenom II X^ 1055T, on the contrary, consumes more than the rest of the participants in idle mode.
However, when it comes to power consumption under heavy load, the differences between tested systems equipped with mainstream processors may exceed 70 W. Note that the worst results here belong to Phenom II X4 and Phenom II X6, which means only one thing: mainstream processors from AMD are not that fit for energy-efficient and quiet systems. Dual-core Intel products for LGA775 and LGA1156 platforms prove to be much more energy-efficient. However, even more power-hungry quad-core CPUs from this maker will offer better performance-to-power consumption rates than AMD CPUs.
There appeared to be quite a lot of processors in the mainstream price segment, but it is not that hard to single out the most successful ones. Our extensive tests showed that all models split into several performance groups quite clearly, so it is fairly easy for us to put together a list of recommendations for those who look to buy a CPU in the $100-$200 ballpark.
First of all, I have to stress one more time that LGA775 platform is a past stage of the computer evolution. And this conclusion is drawn not only from the age of this platform, or its outdated structure with the memory controller located outside the CPU. Even if we simply look at the benchmark scores, we will see that in all cases CPUs for more contemporary platforms can offer much better performance (this is especially true for dual-core processors). Therefore, we would strongly recommend to avoid building new systems around Core 2 Duo or Core 2 Quad CPUs. Even if you are going to simply upgrade an LGA775 system, we would urge you to consider replacing the entire platform, as it will have a much great effect in the long run.
Secondly, just like during our Value CPU performance research, we can’t help drawing your attention to the success of Socket AM3 processors. Although, this is only true for quad- and six-core models. AMD adjusted their price list in such a way that in the sub-$180 price range, their processors are almost always the most appealing choice. However, it doesn’t make up for the obvious drawbacks of the Socket Am3 platform: too high power consumption and the lack of high-performance models that could be used for future upgrades.
Thirdly, we can’t leave the LGA1156 platform unnoticed. There are quite a few interesting options for this platform available today. For example, the 196-dollar Core i5-750 is an obvious favorite of this test session, as it appears at the top of many performance charts. If you are looking for something less expensive, then Core i3 family may be able to offer you decent price-to-performance ratio. Although these are dual-core CPUs, Hyper-Threading technology makes them virtually quad-core, so they can really shine in quite a few tests.
In order to illustrate the correlation between the consumer qualities of the tested processors in the mainstream price segment, we put together the following diagram showing the average performance vs. average price.
This diagram suggests the following specific recommendations.
The today’s fastest mainstream processor is undoubtedly Intel Core i5-750. With four pretty fast cores and Turbo Boost technology support this LGA1156 CPU demonstrates high performance in resource-hungry applications, as well as 3D games. In other words, this is a win-win choice. Intel Core i5-750 receives our Editor’s Choice title:
However, some of you may consider Core i5-750 to be overly expensive, and they will be right: this CPU costs almost $200. In this case, we would recommend checking out the entire Phenom II X4 family: Phenom II X4 955, Phenom II X4 965 and Phenom II X4 970. These processors work well in games, and are very effective in a number of other tasks, like video editing, encryption and final rendering. The recipe for their appeal is simple: four “real” cores with high clock frequency and large L3 cache. Besides, do not forget about a nice little bonus: an unlocked clock frequency multiplier.
As for the least expensive options, these are quad-core Athlon II X4 processors. Due to the fact that AMD is always up-to-date regarding the situation in the market and adjusts the pricing accordingly, we would like to recommend Athlon II X4 645 and Athlon II X4 640 processors. These are the today’s most affordable quad-core processors, which is their primary trump. Of course, we don’t always need four cores, but those applications that utilize the processor seriously enough will work way better on a system with quad- rather than dual-core CPU inside.
Summing up, we would like to say that AMD Phenom II X4 955, Phenom II X4 965, Phenom II X4 970, Athlon II X4 645 and Athlon II X4 640 receive our Recommended Buy title:
Core i3 processors also look very good. Of course, they lose to quad-core AMD products in terms of price-to-performance ratio they have to offer, because they have only two computational cores even with Hyper-Threading support. However, Intel has completely different advantages to offer. Core i3 processor family is not just extremely energy-efficient, but these processors also feature an integrated graphics core, which is powerful enough for HTPC systems and doesn’t require any additional cooling, because the regular CPU cooler is more than enough for it. Therefore, Core i3 processors may become a great option for a quiet home system.
And the last recommendation will be for those users who would like to put together a relatively powerful computer system that would work best with well-paralleled tasks. The six-core Phenom II X6 1055T will be the best bet for a platform like that: it offers unmatched performance during video transcoding and rendering in the mainstream price segment. This processor is at the top of the price-to-performance diagram above, which became possible after AMD’s last price reduction. However, keep in mind that far not every application is capable of generating six parallel computational threads, so this six-core CPU may not be a good fit for a gaming system, for instance.