by Ilya Gavrichenkov
11/10/2010 | 12:00 AM
We are getting closer to the end of the year, which means that Christmas sales are around the corner – the time when most users will be purchasing new computer systems or upgrading the already existing ones. In response to numerous questions from our readers, we prepared a series of comparative articles featuring majority of components available in stores today. Our today’s article will open a series dedicated to the performance of contemporary processors, which modifications are currently so diverse that even an experienced user may occasionally get lost. Of course, if we cast a quick glance over the existing offerings from AMD and Intel, we will see that both leading manufacturers of x86 processors have a great variety of products. They have solutions for four different platforms featuring one, two, three, four or six processor cores working at 2.6-3.6 GHz frequencies and equipped with cache-memory varying from 1 to 12 MB in size.
In fact, it is hard to imagine anything that could be more interesting and needed, especially, because it has been a while since we posted our CPU guides. However, there is one more reason why we decided to get to massive processor performance tests and analysis. The thing is that the upcoming year 2011 should become the time of dramatic changes in the processor market. At least two of four contemporary platforms (LGA775 and LGA1156) will become obsolete within a few short months. The remaining two platforms will be approaching their dawn in the second half of next year. So, at this point a processor shoot-out like that becomes some kind of a farewell to quite a few CPU models, which we will no longer see in our upcoming tests.
The first article is devoted to inexpensive processors from the value segment, which are officially priced in the sub-$100 range. There are 14 different models available today in this price range. Let’s take a closer look at them.
Over the past years and a half AMD managed to completely refresh their entire platform, so now all their processors, even including the cheapest ones are based on 45 nm cores and are designed for Socket AM3 platform supporting DDR3 SDRAM. However, at the same time these processors remain backward compatible with the old Socket AM2+ platform, which makes them a great option also for the upgrade of the existing computer systems.
Even though there haven’t been any significant microarchitectural improvements from AMD for quite some time already, so that the company cannot really compete in the upper price segment, it doesn’t really affect the situation in the value CPU market. The company takes the advantage of this situation the best they can, so they are able to offer a vast variety of inexpensive processors. among them are four different AMD CPU families:
Sempron. There are two things that make this AMD processor family remarkable. On the one hand, these are the only current single-core desktop processors, but on the other – these are the cheapest products on AMD’s as well as Intel’s price lists. Contemporary members of this family work at up to 2.8 GHz frequencies and have 1 MB of L2 cache memory, which has proven to be sufficient for typical office and Internet-applications.
Athlon II X2. The most “popular” processors for inexpensive Socket AM3 systems are dual-core Athlon II X2 CPUs. They are selling at very affordable prices are their clock speeds reach as high as 3.2 GHz. Other than that you can regard Athlon II X2 as two Sempron CPUs within the same packaging: each core of these dual-core processors features a 1 MB L2 cache. The added appeal of this processor family is the OEM CPU modifications that appear from time to time. These processors have slightly limited features, but come at a price almost as low as that of Sempron processors.
Athlon II X3. AMD’s unique triple-core Athlon II X3 CPUs appear as a way of utilizing the chips that cannot be used for quad-core processors. Therefore, these processors are especially interesting: on the one hand, their price is very affordable, but on the other, the third core comes in very handy in those applications that can be easily paralleled. Especially, since Athlon II X3 clock frequencies are not that much lower than those of the dual-core CPUs: they go as high as 3.2 GHz. However, they have somewhat smaller cache memory: each core has only 512 KB of individual L2 cache.
Phenom II X2. AMD positions this processor family as dual-core CPUs for enthusiasts with limited financial means. In reality it means that these processors allow changing their clock frequency multiplier and thus offer easy overclocking. Moreover, Phenom II X2 has 6 MB of L3 cache memory shared among all cores. As for the clock speed, it reaches the pretty common 3.3 GHz level, but only the 3.2 GHz processor falls into the sub-$100 price range.
Speaking of inexpensive AMD CPUs, we would like to point out several nice things about them. First of all, it is very appealing that these processors use the same exact infrastructure as the expensive AMD processors. And it means that the value dual-core Socket AM3 processor from AMD can be easily replaced with a more expensive multi-core Phenom II CPU. Moreover, AMD decided to let their low-cost processors keep all of their secondary features as is. For example, even AMD Sempron, not to mention Athlon II X2 or Phenom II X2, support fast DDR3-1600 SDRAM and Virtualization. Another great advantage, is the fact that Socket AM3 processors from AMD are compatible with AMD’s high-performance chipsets. In practical terms it means that there are quite a few mainboards with fast integrated graphics available to the owners of such processors, and integrated graphics development is something AMD is very good at.
Another argument in favor of inexpensive AMD CPUs is their undocumented ability to allow activating additional cores, because some modifications of inexpensive CPUs are built on semiconductor dies with more cores than indicated in the CPU specs. Among processors that may offer you a pleasant surprise like that are Sempron CPUs, which could acquire a second core; Athlon II X3 based on quad-core dies; and Phenom II X2, which may allow you to activate the third or even the fourth core.
The table below lists the specs of all value CPUs from AMD that participated in our today’s test session.
Intel’s strategy towards inexpensive processor segment is totally different. While AMD tries to integrate their budget processors into a unified platform supporting both: value and high-performance CPUs, Intel uses the users of inexpensive systems to offload their almost obsolete products belonging to a platform, which is of no interest to the mainstream segment any more. This is exactly what Intel inexpensive processors are these days: mostly LGA775 form-factor using 45 nm production process. The main drawback of this platform is the separation of the CPU and the memory controller, which is inside the chipset in LGA775 systems. The chipset and the CPU are connected via the FSB bus, which insufficient bandwidth may limit the memory subsystem performance quite noticeably.
However, even though LGA775 platform has nearly lost its former significance, Intel continues to maintain clear product differentiation, making sure that cheap mainstream processors get discontinued in time. As a result, Core 2 processors do not fall into the lowest price segment, as their price is still above $100 even though they have been out there for a substantial number of years already. So, the value segment from Intel features only Celeron and Pentium LGA775 CPUs, which frequencies, however, are increased accordingly from time to time.
Celeron E3000. Celeron family includes dual-core CPUs with up to 2.7 GHz frequencies. They feature 1 MB of shared L2 cache. I have to point out that these processors support 200 MHz bus, which makes it impossible to use any faster memory than DDR2-800 (or DDR3-800) SDRAM. However, very attractive price makes up for this limited functionality: most Celeron models cost less than $50.
Pentium E5000/E6000. This LGA775 processor family may be regarded as an enhanced Celeron. While it also has two computational cores, all of its specifications have been brought up to a more acceptable level. The clock frequencies reach up to 3.33 GHz, the bus frequency has been increased to 266 MHz, and the shared L2 cache has grown 2 MB big. This combination of parameters ensures that Pentium is at least one step ahead of Celeron and makes this processor family the most popular Intel CPU even beyond the value segment.
I have to admit that LGA775 platform doesn’t look too appealing against the background of AMD. There are no processors coming out, it may even be considered a solution on the verge of becoming completely obsolete. The inexpensive Pentium processors will be replaced with the upcoming Sandy Bridge microarchitecture in Q2 2011 already. And In Q3 LGA775 Celerons will also start to get ousted from the market. Therefore, any further upgrade of the LGA775 platform is only possible by replacing Celeron or Pentium CPUs with some Core 2 products, because some Core 2 modifications will most likely last throughout the next year. However, it is important to understand that in terms of price-to-performance ratio, mainstream LGA775 processors definitely will not be able to compete against the new products from younger generations.
As for the few advantages of the LGA775 platform, we could mention low cost, diversity and wide availability of mainboards, even including models with unique features and functionality. Moreover, besides a wide range of already existing solutions, there are quite a few attractive contemporary choices. For example, LGA775 becomes the simplest and most reasonable option for a mini-ITX system.
I have to say that there is one more type of budget CPUs from Intel that keeps a little to itself. I am talking about Pentium G6950 designed for LGA1156 systems.
Pentium G9650 is an analogue of dual-core Core i5/i3 processors with extremely limited functionality. Therefore, it is based on 32 nm core and has a second semiconductor die inside the same processor packaging – the graphics core that may work in Intel H57/H55 based mainboards. The CPU doesn’t support any contemporary technologies increasing the performance (such as Hyper-Threading or Turbo Boost) and has a smaller 3 MB L3 cache. Pentium G6950 works at 2.8 GHz clock frequency and the maximum DDR3 SDRAM frequency is limited by 1067 MHz.
In other words, in terms of its formal specifications Pentium G6950 is just as appealing as its LGA775 counterparts, especially since its price is getting extremely close to $90. But this only budget LGA1156 processor has one indisputable advantage: it is also compatible with the platform that can take contemporary high-performance CPUs. However, this advantage has another side to it, as well: LGA1156 mainboards cost considerably more than Socket AM3 and LGA775 mainboards.
Let’s sum everything up in the following table that will list the specifications of all current Intel processors from the value price segment:
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.
Since this article is part of a large performance analysis of contemporary processors, do not be surprised that all hardware components used for our testbeds, except for the CPUs, are hardly from the value segment. However, when it comes to CPU performance, it is not that important, really: all benchmarks emulate situations when the CPU and not any other components becomes the system bottleneck. Otherwise, testing like that would make absolutely no sense.
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.
As we see, the results obtained in this test correlate very well with the processor price – more expensive CPUs perform better. There is only one exception – triple-core Athlon II X3 CPUs that fall a little bit behind cheaper dual-core solutions. This is because most applications included into SYSmark 2007 testing suite are optimized for single- and dual-core microarchitectures. And that is more of a typical trait of most contemporary office applications rather than a peculiarity of this specific benchmark.
Here is a table with more detailed SYSmark 2007 scores sorted according to the application type:
As you know, it is the graphics subsystem that determines the platform performance in the majority of contemporary games. Therefore, when you are building a gaming system, you should first of all find a proper graphics accelerator. However, value processors can also become a bottleneck of the gaming platform. You can clearly see that from the results of our gaming tests carried out with a high-performance graphics accelerator in the system.
AMD processors with the integrated DDR2/DDR3 memory controller do pretty well in those games that are quite sensitive not only to the processor computational power, but also to the memory subsystem performance. Judging by the obtained results we can conclude with all certainty that Socket AM3 platform would be a good choice for an inexpensive gaming system. And purchasing an exotic triple-core Athlon II X3 processor may be a good way to go. As we can see, contemporary games get a noticeable performance boost from acquiring a third processor core.
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.
There are a lot of factor affecting the WinRAR performance: clock frequency, number of cores, cache-memory size, etc. As a result, triple-core processors and Phenom II X2 - the only CPU in our session with a large L3 cache - become the leaders in this test.
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 task that can be easily paralleled, so it is absolutely logical that the triple-core processors with relatively high clock frequencies win this race. As for the results demonstrated by dual-core testing participants, Athlon II X2 and Phenom II X2 turn out a little faster than their competitors from the Celeron and Pentium series.
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 perform faster in Adobe Photoshop. Their advantage is so significant, that a 50-dollar Celeron is even faster than AMD Phenom II X2 priced over $90.
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 utilize only a pair of processor cores.
Apple iTunes is an example of yet another application that favors Intel CPU architecture. Here All Pentium processors outperform any Athlon II X2 and Phenom II X2 CPUs. However, junior Celeron processors cannot repeat the success of their elder brothers, because of a too small L2 cache.
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 in any other application optimized for multi-core architectures, triple-core Athlon II X3 processors show the best results among other value processors during video encoding tests. All other testing participants line up according to their price. There is only one exception: the LGA1156 Pentium G6950 loses to the top Pentium CPUs for LGA775 form-factor, which, however, cost considerably less.
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.
The results obtained during video encoding in Adobe Media Encoder are not that much different from what we have just seen during x.264 tests. However, in this case AMD processors improved their results and now the top Pentium can only catch up with Athlon II X2 255.
We launch standard MathematicaMark7 test from Wolfram Mathematica suite to measure the systems’ performance here.
We see right away that large cache is important for high scores in Mathematica suite. That is exactly why Phenom II X2 is the number one here, as it has not only L2, but also L3 cache. As for Athlon II X2 processors, they don’t do too good: they fall behind top Pentium CPUs. The Celeron processors with significantly reduced L2 cache become real outsiders against the background of other testing participants.
We use special Cinebench test to measure the final rendering speed in Maxon Cinema 4D.
The more cores the processor has, the faster it is. We can see it clearly in rendering tasks, so the superiority of the triple-core processor over its dual-core fellow shouldn’t be surprising to you. other than that, there was nothing unexpected here: the CPUs lined up on the diagram in accordance with their price.
Rendering speed in Autodesk 3ds max 2011 with both, Scanline as well as Mental Ray, was measured using SPECapc test.
As we see from the results obtained in 3ds max 2011, processors with Core microarchitecture cope better with final rendering in this application. However, Athlon II X3 still manages to rip the victory out of top Pentium’s hands due to their third core. I have to say that this third core is a very strong argument in a number of benchmarks, and not just here.
Performance is not the only practical spec that may be of interest to potential buyers of value CPUs. Many users decide to go for value solutions not for money-saving reasons, but because of lower power consumption of such processors compared to their higher-speed counterparts. And this makes processors like that a pretty attractive choice for miniature multimedia systems, like HTPC, which often do not require high processor performance at all. Therefore, we decided to add a power consumption comparison to our extensive performance tests.
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.
In idle mode all tested systems consume about the same amount of power with a slight advantage towards AMD based platforms.
However, things change dramatically as soon as processors get hit with computational load. Celeron and Pentium prove more energy-efficient than AMD CPUs with similar price and performance. And in this case the power consumption difference is pretty significant: almost 20-30 W.
So, looks like Intel processors are a way better fit for energy-efficient, miniature or quiet systems. AMD can only offer special energy-efficient processors with 45 W TDP for systems like that. However, it is important to remember that processors like that work at lower clock speeds, cost more and are more difficult to find in stores.
Despite the fact that the value segment including CPUs priced between $40 and $100 seems to be pretty narrow, AMD and Intel offer a large variety of very diverse solutions in it. This diversity makes it tricky to find an optimal CPU for one’s needs. Moreover, just like with high-performance platforms, you should always consider the way your inexpensive system will be used when you shop for a suitable processor.
As we have just determined inexpensive Intel processors perform pretty well in typical office applications, but yield significantly to competing solutions from AMD under heavier load, such as video transcoding, data encryption or 3D games. And this isn’t surprising at all: LGA775 being a very old platform that has hard time catching up with the contemporary needs has definitely affected its performance. In fact, LGA775 processors are simply unable to score higher than value Socket AM3 CPUs in those tasks where high performance is required.
However, Celeron and Pentium CPUs have another important advantage: they are much more energy-efficient than Athlon or Phenom. And it is not about some formal superiority, but about a significant practical advantage. Therefore, we can strongly recommend Intel processors for those systems, where low noise and small size matter more than performance in resource-hungry apps. Especially, since mainboard makers have a lot of modifications of miniature mainboards designed for LGA775 form-factor.
I would also like to say a few words about Intel Pentium G6950, because it is a truly unique processor – it is the only LGA1156 product that falls into the Value price segment. However, it doesn’t prevent this CPU from showing very disappointing results: it was outpaced by almost the entire LGA775 Pentium family, not to mention the competitors from AMD. It is obvious that Intel has restricted the functionality of their Clarkdale core too severely. Although Pentium G6950 does have a few real advantages. Besides a pretty decent integrated graphics core, it is also compatible with the mainboards for Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs, which means that it could be a good choice for those users who intend to upgrade at a later day.
In order to better illustrate the consumer advantages of value processors from Intel and AMD, we created a diagram showing how the average performance of the today’s testing participants correlates with their price:
As you can see from this diagram, the best price-to-performance ratio in the Value segment belongs to Athlon II X3 CPUs. Multithreaded applications are not a rare thing these days, even many contemporary games can successfully utilize more than two processor cores. Therefore, Athlon II X3 CPUs look like one of the most optimal choices with a small price tag: they offer three computational cores and pretty high clock speeds. And if we also consider the possibility of unlocking the fourth core, it becomes perfectly clear why we think Athlon II X3 445 and Athlon II X3 450 are the absolute best choices in the sub-$100 price range today. We are proud to award these two processors our Recommended Buy title:
If you are looking for something even less expensive than that, then you should try to find something like an Athlon II X2 220. Unfortunately, they are being distributed only through OEM channels and may be quite hard to come by in a computer store. But if you manage to find one of those, you will be rewarded with a good CPU performance at a minimal price. Moreover, just like Athlon II X3, this processor can potentially turn into a triple- or even quad-core piece due to activation of the disabled cores. To our great regret, there are no attractive offerings like that among officially shipped Athlon II X2.
If you are a devoted Intel fan or if you are looking primarily for an energy-efficient solution, you should check out Pentium E5700 or Pentium E6700, which offer the best price-to-performance ration among their counterparts. At the same time, they consume considerably less power than any dual- or triple-core AMD CPUs.