Contemporary Dual-Core Processors Shootout

We tested 17 contemporary dual-core processors from AMD and Intel to answer the most important question the users ask these days: what solution is the best choice from the consumer standpoint basing on their price, performance and power consumption.

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
01/30/2008 | 02:33 PM

Any views, even if they are based on your life experience, should be revised from time to time. Especially since technological progress as well as certain companies’ engineering and marketing efforts may seriously affect these views with the time. Even if you are not checking out computer hardware price-lists and news on a regular basis, you still understand, how unstable the situation in the computer market actually is and how frequently it changes. That is why we believe it is essential to perform large comparative test sessions for different hardware components every now and then, because results of these tests may be very helpful in painting the complete picture of the current market situation at a given moment of time.

 

Today we would like to offer you a material like that. Our article will discuss the current situation in the processor market, which has changed dramatically over the first few weeks of 2008. It is really high time we questioned the ability of AMD processors to still offer attractive price-to-performance features despite constant pressure from the Intel solutions. This January Intel managed not only to launch new dual-core CPUs based on 45nm cores and featuring larger L2 cache, higher clock frequencies and SSE4 instructions support. Besides, they have also supplied faster CPU on 65nm cores – Pentium E2200 and Celeron E1200, which may also seriously affect the situation in the CPU market together with the Core 2 Duo E4600 processor launched last October. However, AMD didn’t keep its hands in pockets either. They dropped the price of their dual-core solutions again, changing the situation in the market a lot.

In other words, it definitely makes a lot of sense to compare the currently available processors against one another from multiple aspects. This time we are going to focus on dual-core CPUs that have already taken over the biggest part of the market these days. They are available in all price ranges with only exception of High-End. Their prices range from $60 to $270, which determines their use in majority of today’s computer systems. For example, CPU-Z statistics claims that more than 50% of today’s computer systems feature dual-core CPUs and this situation will hardly change in favor of processor with more cores any time soon.

In order to single out all dual-core processors worth checking out today, we looked through official company price-lists and removed all not very attractive offers that are currently being sold out and discontinued as soon as possible. As a result, the list of currently available AMD and Intel dual-core solutions was reduced to the following:

Note that Core 2 Duo E6000 CPUs are no longer among the contemporary offerings. They have been evolutionary replaced with Core 2 Duo E8000 selling at the same prices.

As for the overall picture, Intel processors cover a much broader price range than AMD processors, as you may see. However, I have to say in AMD’s defense that in Q2 2008 their product lineup will be significantly enlarged with dual-core and triple-core CPUs with Phenom micro-architecture. In the meanwhile, AMD doesn’t even aim at the top of the mainstream CPU market targeting all their solutions at less expensive systems. Intel, however, still sticks to very pleasing fixed price level even after the launch of new processor models, despite the fact that there is practically no competition at this time in $180+ part of the CPU market.

Processor Specifications

Before we move on to the actual performance numbers for the above listed processors, let’s take a quick look at the specifications of the dual-core CPUs participating in our today’s test session:

Testbed and Methods

Besides the CPUs listed in the previous section of our article, we have also uses the following hardware to build our testbeds.

Note that when we tested Socket AM2 processors and Intel processors with 800MHz bus, the system memory was running at 800MHz because of the limitations set by these platforms. We set the timings at 4-4-4-12. With Core 2 Duo E8000 series CPUs the memory worked at 1066MHz with 5-5-5-15 timings.

Performance

General Performance

The first group of the results obtained in complex SYSmark 2007 suite estimating the average systems performance during typical tasks processing gives us excellent material for conclusions. We have already pointed out that new Intel processors on 45nm cores have raised the dual-core processor performance standards significantly. The same is true this time, too: the entire Core 2 Duo E8000 family is very much ahead of the AMD processors and Intel CPUs on older cores. As for other dual-core CPUs, their performance numbers get into a very close group. As you can see, top AMD solutions are a little ahead of Core 2 Duo E4000 processors, while the youngest Athlon 64 X2 compete successfully against dual-core Celeron E1200 and even Pentium E2160.

3D Games

The processors performance in gaming applications appears even more illustrative. Wolfdale CPUs on 45nm cores look like the solutions from far away future here, because the gap between them and other solutions from the Core 2 Duo family is really impressive. However, it is not surprising at all, because L2 cache memory has very big influence on gaming performance. Core 2 Duo E8000 is the only series that boasts 6MB L2 cache, all the other Core 2 Duo processors have 2MB or smaller L2 cache. That is why Celeron E1200 doesn’t look too good against its fellows’ background: Intel cut down all the possible specifications of this processor including the L2 cache.

As for the good old Athlon 64 X2, they certainly cannot compete against the flagship dual-core Intel solutions. However, they performed pretty well against Core 2 Duo E4000. Three processors models with 5600+, 6000+ and 6400+ ratings managed to outperform Core 2 Duo E4600.

Media Content Encoding

I believe there is no need to tell you again about the advantages of the Intel processors on 45nm cores. I would only like to add that they also support new SSE4 SIMD instructions that will increase their performance advantage even more as the software developers add their support into new codec versions.

Overall, all processors on Core micro-architecture do very well in audio and video content encoding applications. Those Core 2 Duo and Athlon 64 X2 processors that have previously demonstrated similar performance numbers, differ dramatically in applications of this type, and the difference is obviously not in AMD’s favor. For example, Athlon 64 X2 6400+ performs as fast as Core 2 Duo E4600, while Pentium E2160 is often faster than Athlon 64 X2 4200+. However, some codecs can provide absolutely different results, as you can see from the chart for Mediaconcept H.264 Encoder.

Final Rendering

Once again dual-core Intel processors starting with Core 2 Duo E4600 got mixed up with AMD CPUs. Faster Wolfdale processors that have taken over the upper part of the charts are again beyond any competition.

Other Applications

Intel processors are very strong in Adobe applications. Even Celeron E1200 that is traditionally taking one of the last places on the result charts managed to outperform Athlon 64 X2 4200+ in this test. The same situation can also be observed in a little higher echelon: Athlon 64 X2 6400+, for instance, loses to Core 2 Duo E4600 in Photoshop and After Effects.

The results of WinRAR are also extremely interesting. As we can see, the testing participants lined up according to the size of their L2 cache memory.

The Mathematica chart is probably the only one that looks pretty common here. The results of this computational test can be regarded as pretty “average”.

Power Consumption

Processor performance is not the only characteristic that we have been paying special attention to lately. Another important parameter is, of course, power consumption and heat dissipation. The reason for that increased interest is certainly not the electrical bills that may certainly be a serious argument in favor of this or that solutions.

The thing also is that computer systems have become so conventional these days that there appeared the whole bunch of consumer devices based on x86 processors. Take, for example, HTPC – small form-factor systems that perform the functions of a home media center. CPUs consuming a lot of power and hence dissipating a lot of heat cannot suit for systems like that, because there is simply no way to ensure their proper cooling.

Moreover, a lot of users try to make their systems as quiet as possible. This parameter is directly connected with the power consumption and heat dissipation characteristics: more economical processors can often do with passive cooling or cooler using quiet slow rotating fans.

Therefore, we performed a separate test session to measure the power consumption of the systems (without the monitor) built on our tested processors. The platforms configurations were the same as in the performance tests we have just discussed. Enhanced Intel SpeedStep and Cool’n’Quiet power-saving technologies were enabled. We used Prime95 25.5 utility to load the CPUs to their maximum.

In idle mode the systems built with different CPUs do not differ much in terms of their power consumption. It is actually not surprising, because the above mentioned power-saving technologies affect the power consumption of all processors, so in idle mode it is other hardware components that make the biggest contribution into the final result. At the same time, I would like to say that Intel processors are overall a little better here.

In burn mode the situation changes dramatically. The differences in processors power consumption rates are noticeable with the naked eye.

Top AMD processors based on 90nm core suffer a complete fiasco here. Frankly speaking, this is exactly what we have expected, because they feature the highest nominal TDP of 125W. Athlon 64 X2 processors on the newer 65nm Brisbane core prove much more economical, although they still cannot outperform Intel solutions. Only the slowest Athlon 64 X2 CPUs can boast the same power consumption as the top Intel Core 2 Duo E4000 processors also using 65nm core. As for the newest dual-core Wolfdale CPUs, they consume even less power, which most likely makes them the most optimal choice from the performance-per-watt standpoint. The today’s most economical dual-core processors are the new Celeron E1200 and Pentium E2000 series. These processors work at lower clock frequencies and have small L2 cache.

What CPU to Pick?

Some users base their decision on the processor performance in specific applications. Some care more about their power consumption and heat dissipation levels. However, most PC users working in diverse applications look at the average performance numbers. Therefore we calculated this number for all our testing participants as the arithmetic average of the normalized CPU performance in all tests. This average value is given on the diagram below:

Note that since the processor performance is related to AMD K8 and Intel Core micro-architectures in pretty much the same way in different applications, the integral average performance value represents their speed in most applications fairly well.

Actually, we can estimate if the official pricing of the today’s acute dual-core processors is justified or not basing on this graph.

We can make a few conclusions right away by just comparing the two diagrams. But for the sake of even more illustrative picture, we would like to offer you one more chart showing both: processor pricing and their average performance index.

You can see right away that AMD processors are currently overpriced. Intel processors offer better performance at a lower price. And it works for any price segment. However, the worst happens to top Athlon 64 X2 CPUs. After the launch of the new Core 2 Duo E8000 processors with the prices starting at $163, AMD can simply forget about this part of the processor market. Athlon 64 X2 6400+ and 6000+ can only compete against Core 2 Duo E4000 family, which will very soon welcome a new member with E4700 rating.

As for the different Intel CPUs, Core 2 Duo E8200 and E8400 seem to be the most attractive choices from the price-to-performance prospective. These are the today’s best buys, if you can find them at the price close to Intel’s official one (unfortunately, it is hardly possible until the market gets saturated with 45nm solutions). The top Wolfdale model, Core 2 Duo E8500, is a little overpriced – the price you have to pay for unprecedentedly high clock frequency of this solution.

We also suggest checking out similar price-to-performance charts we put together for different types of applications.

Some dual-core AMD processors look quite competitive against Intel solutions in gaming tasks. For example, the lower part of Athlon 64 X2 family can boast the same price-to-performance ratio as Pentium E2000 series. The price of Athlon 64 X2 5600+ is also absolutely justified as it works faster than Core 2 Duo E4600 on average. So, despite the changes in the market, some AMD solutions can still be recommended for inexpensive gaming systems. Although we have to admit that this situation is pretty unstable, because this is the only type of applications where the price of Athlon 64 X2 CPUs can be justified. Most Intel solutions working at about the same level in games prove faster in all other applications, which makes them more attractive than the competitors.

Video and audio content encoding and processing are hardly suitable for AMD CPUs. These processors are very slow in applications of this type and cannot justify their price at all.

Those systems that mostly work with 3D modeling tasks will also benefit more from Intel processors. At least in the dual-core segment.

Other Integral Features of Contemporary Dual-Core Processors

Here we decided to offer you two additional diagrams that may be very interesting. First, it is the diagram that shows the connection between performance and power consumption:

I believe no comments are necessary here. The diagram speaks for itself: new Intel CPUs on 45nm cores have set new power efficiency standards, which will be very hard for other processor to reach. However, even older Intel processors on Core micro-architecture based on 65nm cores look not too bad here. This way, competitors from AMD will be less preferable for quiet performance systems, at least according to common sense.

Second, we put together a diagram showing the performance to frequency ratio that should reveal how efficient micro-architectures of different processors actually are.

The diagram shows very well that CPUs with Core micro-architecture can process more instructions per clock cycle than K8 processors. That is why Athlon 64 X2 should work at about 20% higher frequency in order to catch up with Core 2 Dup E4000 or Pentium E2000 performance.

And in order to compete against Wolfdale, AMD K8 processors should run at 40% faster frequency, which is simply impossible today. That is why the today’s Athlon 64 X2 simply cannot compete against new dual-core Core 2 Duo E8000 processors at all.

Conclusion

In fact we have already shared all the conclusions that can be made basing on the results obtained during this test session. So, now we will simply sum everything up stressing the most important things.

So, new Intel Core 2 Duo E8000 processors based on 45nm Penryn cores do not have any worthy competitors at this time. They are considerably faster than Core 2 Duo with smaller model numbers and outperform the top AMD Athlon 64 X2 CPUs with overwhelming advantage. Add here their fantastically low power consumption and pretty democratic official pricing and Core 2 Duo E8000 will turn into a potential market hit. It is especially true for Core 2 Duo E8200 and E8400 models.

Only retailers can cast a shadow over this rosy situation, because they keep the prices for these promising models at a pretty high level since the market hasn’t been saturated with them just yet. However, this problem should very soon get resolved.

As for the top Athlon 64 X2 processors, they turned out seriously overpriced after the launch of the new Core 2 Duo E8200. Today they can only compete against Core 2 Duo E4000 and Pentium E2000. Moreover, we can check out how reasonable AMD’s price policy actually is with a simple empirical rule: for AMD Athlon 64 X2 processor to perform as fast as a Core 2 Duo E4000 or Pentium E2000, it should run at about 20% higher clock speed.

It means that from the performance standpoint AMD Athlon 64 X2 6000+ should cost as much as Core 2 Duo E4600, and Athlon 64 X2 5000+ shouldn’t be priced higher than Pentium E2200. Only in this case the dual-core processors pricing would be considered fair and reasonable. Moreover, we will have to disregard the power consumption rates in this case, because regular Athlon 64 X2 cannot be considered economical.

So, the results of our today’s dual-core processor shoot-out indicate clearly that Intel processors win the “Best Buy” title in every single price segment. And it will remain this way until AMD reduces the prices on its Athlon 64 X2, which keep rapidly losing their appeal. The situation may also change if they launch revised triple-core and dual-core processors on Phenom-like architecture, which have a chance of become more competitive against Core 2 Duo. However, it will hardly happen any time soon.