Value CPUs Roundup: Is There Life in Low-End?

Systems built on processors selling at around $50 are in fact not so bad at all. Our today’s article will talk specifically about these processors: AMD Sempron, Intel Celeron and the least expensive solutions from AMD Athlon II X2 and Intel Pentium families.

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
11/30/2009 | 10:38 PM

We do our best to keep close eye on all the events happening in the CPU market. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that over the past year we posted almost two dozen processor reviews on our site. Nevertheless, even that doesn’t seem to be enough to keep track of all changes and new tendencies. We are certainly focusing more on the hot new solutions, and in 2009 almost all of them belonged to the high-end and mainstream segment. So, it turned out that inexpensive processors didn’t get enough of our attention this year. However, I don’t think that it is fair to focus only on expensive high-end solutions. The regular refreshes in the low-end processor lineups from AMD and Intel resulted in the fact that even the value CPUs currently have sufficient computational capacity for successful work on many tasks. The graphics processors developers certainly contributed to this state of things by transferring some of the tasks that used to be solely CPUs’ responsibilities into the graphics cards. As a result, you can currently use low-end processors not only in offer computer systems, but also in some home systems, and that would be not for the reasons coming from the worldwide economic crisis. At this time even nettops built on low-performance Intel Atom processors have won their fair share of the market. So, low-cost Socket AM3 and LGA775 solutions with guaranteed higher performance and universality should definitely do well, especially since they can be used in platforms allowing easy upgrade.

 

For the reasons described above we decided to dedicate our next article to the CPUs priced within $35-$60 range and this way round up the discussion about inexpensive platforms that we started in our Celeron E3300 review and an article on contemporary chipsets with integrated graphics. So, our today’s article will be targeted not for computer enthusiasts but for those users who shoot for approximately 200-dollar platforms (including a CPU, mainboard with integrated graphics and memory). In our roundup we are going to talk about possible system configurations like that and show the performance level they can actually attain.

Testing Participants

It seems that both, AMD and Intel, do not currently have much to offer in the price range we picked.

AMD Processors

AMD solutions for low-end platforms usually belong to the Sempron family. The Sempron lineup has become considerably less numerous by now and the official price-list only has one solution in it: Sempron 140. This CPU is really cheap and is priced at only $36. Low price is not the only peculiarity of Sempron 140 CPU. It seems to be a combination of several contradicting features: it is Socket AM3 compatible, supports DDR3 SDRAM and has only one processor core. Moreover, this pretty “old school” CPU uses 45 nm Sargas core that is similar in microarchitecture to Deneb, Propus and Regor.

Never-ending competition against Intel forces AMD to constantly reduce their prices in the mainstream segment. That is why it is quite logical that even with a very limited budget you can count on a CPU from a way higher category than Sempron. For example, Athlon II X2 240, which is officially priced at $60. It is a common dual-core CPU on Regor core that has no L3 cache, but have 1 MB of L2 cache memory per each core.

The third value AMD processor participating in our today’s test session is Athlon II X2 215, which is not in the official price list, but nevertheless exists. The thing is that this mysterious processor is only available through OEM channels, which, however, doesn’t prevent users from buying it in retail as well. In terms of pricing, Athlon II X2 215 is somewhere in-between Athlon II X2 240 and Sempron 140: this CPU is available for about $50. At the same time, like other Athlon II X2 solutions, this CPU is Socket AM3 compatible, has two computational cores and works at a relatively high clock frequency. Only its L2 cache has been cut down to 512 KB per core.

We have also included the previous generation Athlon X2 processors on 65 nm semiconductor die into our today’s roundup of low-cost CPUs. Although these processors are pretty outdated already, they are still widely available in computer stores. For example, on a budget in question you can easily purchase Athlon X2 5600+, which formal specifications do not look that bad at all: its clock frequency is even higher than that of Athlon II X2 240, and L2 cache is 512 KB per core. So, this processor may in fact turn out a good choice, which we are going to check out during the actual tests.

Intel Processors

As for Intel solutions, we included several representatives of the Celeron family. This manufacturer is more careful when it comes to subordination of their product lineups that is why the CPUs from higher price range almost never fall into the low-end price segment. The cheapest Intel processor in our today’s roundup is a single-core Celeron 450 price officially at $53. I have to say that Intel is formally trying to keep the CPU prices above $50, because they have a different type of solutions, Intel Atom, for the users who look to buy even less expensive systems. However, in reality this rule doesn’t really work too well and the same Celeron 450 for LGA775 systems is often sold at $40-$50. For this amount of money the user can get a single-core CPU on 65 nm Conroe-L core with 512 KB L2 cache and 800 MHz bus support.

For the price of Celeron 450 you can also buy a dual-core Celeron processor on 65 nm Allendale core. We are going to test Celeron E1600. Just like its single-core brother, this processor is equipped with 512 KB L2 cache, which is shared between the two cores. Other than that, it doesn’t boast any remarkable peculiarities, which is, in fact, quite logical, since Celeron E1000 family was launched two years ago and now Intel already has several low-end offerings, which are much more exciting in all respects.

Among these more exciting solutions we would like to mention Celeron E3300, which represents a “new generation” of Celeron processors. This CPU uses a 45 nm core, which microarchitecture is similar to that of the latest LGA755 processors. Although many Celeron features still look pretty limited. This processor, just like the older representatives of this family, uses 800 MHz bus and has only 1 MB of L2 cache. As for the price, it is $53, according to the official price list.

However, not only Celeron processors will represent Intel solutions in our today’s test session. The thing is that with some allowances we could also include the junior Pentium processors into the $35-$60 price range we picked for today’s discussion. They are formally priced at $64, but some retailers are offering these discontinued processor models at way lower prices. Therefore, we will also see Pentium E5200, which in fact doesn’t differ too much from Celeron E3300. Both these processors are based on 45 nm Wolfdale cores, they both work at the same clock frequency and support 800 MHz bus. Pentium E5200 boasts only one advantage: larger 2MB L2 cache.

Specifications Summary

So, those users who are trying to save some money end up with a pretty good choice. Even by taking one CPU from each class we managed to gather eight processor models that could be used in contemporary value platforms. The detailed formal specifications of our today’s testing participants are summed up in the following table:


Click to enlarge

Testbed and Methods

It makes perfect sense to test inexpensive processors in as realistic conditions as possible, namely in low-cost systems. Only in this case the obtained results acquire the maximum practical value. Therefore, for our today’s test session we took inexpensive MicroATX mainboards based on contemporary chipsets with integrated graphics and supporting DDR2 SDRAM. As a result, Intel solutions were tested on an Intel G45 Express platform and AMD ones – on an AMD 780G based one.

However, we had to make one exception and add a graphics card into our testbeds. This was necessary to check out the 3D gaming performance properly because we had to get away from the effect of the different graphics cores integrated into the chipsets. As for the detailed investigation of gaming performance on integrated platforms, you can always go back to our special article called “AMD vs. Intel: Integrated Platforms”.

As a result, we ended up with the following hardware and software components used to build our testbeds:

We have also adjusted the list of applications and benchmarks that we normally use for our performance tests. Since the systems based on inexpensive processors are rarely used as universal solutions and are mostly built for office tasks, internet surfing and simple games, we made sure that the focus was primarily on this type of tasks.

Performance

General Performance

As usual we are going to start the performance analysis with SYSMark 2007 results – a complex benchmark that estimates the systems performance in all sorts of real applications.

Judging by this data we can conclude that in terms of average performance low-cost AMD processors look a little more preferable than their competitors from the Intel camp. Single-core Sempron 140 performs obviously better than single-core Celeron 450; dual-core Athlon II X22 215 outperforms dual-core Celeron CPUs including the new generation ones; and Athlon II X2 240 runs neck and neck with Pentium E5200. AMD’s results are especially impressive in E-Learning pattern that emulates creation of flash-presentations with high-quality images, video and audio. However, at the same time, all these processors lose to their competitors in 3D pattern dealing with 3D modeling applications. The remaining two patterns working with HD video processing and editing as well as typical office suites reveal moderate, but not dramatic advantage demonstrated by AMD CPUs.

Besides SYSMark 2007 test for complex performance analysis we decided to use Windows Experience Index built into Windows 7 operating system. The graph below shows the CPU part of this index:

Very familiar picture: the test integrated into Windows 7, just like SYSMark 2007, considers value AMD solutions to be faster than Celeron and junior Pentium models.

Internet Performance

One of the primary application fields for low-cost computer systems is work with the Internet. Today it implies not only surfing the web: there are numerous online applications and games that utilize actively AJAX and Flash; besides, there is a lot of multimedia content in the web, too. Therefore, real internet related work creates pretty substantial processor load. We are going to check how fast our testing participants can cope with it.

To estimate the performance during complex JavaScript scripts processing we used Futuremark Peacekeeper benchmark. We ran this test twice: with two popular Internet browsers – Internet Explorer 8 and Mozilla Firefox 3.5.

First, I have to say that although it may seem strange, browsers do not need multi-core processors: single-core Celeron 450 and Sempron 140 performed pretty fast. Second, AMD processors again proved to have an advantage over Intel: systems built on these CPUs scored higher in both browsers.

However, so far we have only been talking about JavaScript. How will things turn out when we get to super-popular Flash technology?  We used PowerFlasher Benchmark to estimate the performance with this technology involved. During these tests we also utilized Adobe Flash Player version 10.0.

The advantage of AMD solutions is no so obvious here, although they still retain the leadership. However, these are the results of a synthetic benchmark and we didn’t stick just to it. We also checked out the performance of our tested platforms under real Flash-load. For example, during video playback on YouTube.com site, where they have recently introduced HD 1080p content support. The diagram below shows the frames per second demonstrated by our test systems during the playback of a test movie in this format.

As we see, things are not so simple here: the best results belong to the value Intel solutions. Moreover, none of the tested AMD processors from the discussed price range were fast enough to ensure acceptable fps rate. At the same time Celeron E3300 and Pentium E5200 proved quite capable of playing back video with acceptable quality at over 24 fps.

Luckily, the upcoming Adobe Flash Player version 10.1 (its beta version is already available) will have video playback hardware acceleration implemented for the graphics controllers, which should allow watching HD video even on slower CPUs. This is true for both: the AMD based low-end systems where even the graphics core of the integrated AMD780G chipset is powerful enough to accelerate HD video playback via Flash, as well as similar platforms built around Intel processors. The screenshots below show that with the upcoming Flash Player version you will be able to watch 1080p videos online even on the most junior single-core CPUs, like AMD Sempron 140 and Intel Celeron 460.

 

 Adobe Flash Player 10.0

Adobe Flash Player 10.1 


Intel Celeron 460


AMD Sempron 140


Intel Celeron 460


AMD Sempron 140

At the same time, according to the results of this express test, Flash Player 10.1 is way better optimized for AMD graphics: the CPU utilization is minimal in systems built with AMD components. However, despite 90% CPU utilization HD video will be played pretty smoothly even on Celeron 460.

Another real Flash application that we used to estimate the performance is a three-dimensional multi-player online arcade called Tankionline.

As we see, Intel processors managed to outperform AMD solutions here, too. So, it looks like it would be pretty difficult to make the decision about the best platform choice for a contemporary Internet terminal. However, I think you should still go with Intel Celeron E3300 and Pentium E5200, because these two processors performed better in real Flash applications where performance matters the most.

Performance in Applications

To estimate the systems performance during data archiving we used a popular WinRAR 3.9 tool with maximum compression setting.  Archiving speed turned out dependent on the processor cache memory size in the first place. Also note that single-core CPUs do not look too bad in this test at all.

Processor performance during Dr.Web antivirus check suddenly revealed that this application also works only in single-thread mode. As for the actual CPU performance, processors with larger cache memory again showed better results. By the way, we have already pointed out many times that this parameter is extremely important especially for office applications.

Adobe Photoshop CS4 graphics editor runs faster in systems built around Intel processors. Even the old dual-core Celeron E1600 copes with our test script faster than Athlon II X2 240.

AMD processors can’t boast any superiority during audio conversion into mp3 format using iTunes utility.

However, CPUs from different manufacturers achieve certain parity during video transcoding in Cyberlink MediaShow5. In this test we transcoded an HD video movie trailer in H264 format for Apple iPod/iPhone. However, the result will be pretty much the same during other types of transcoding, too.

It appears that in this case none of the specific platforms can claim the leadership. The only thing you should keep in mind is that most applications utilizing the CPU more or less seriously are already ready to take advantage of multiple CPU cores. Since both CPU makers have value dual-core solutions in the considered price range, we would strongly recommend equipping low-cost systems with these particular solutions.

Performance in 3D Games

To measure the gaming performance of low-end processors participating in our today’s test session we added an ATI Radeon HD 4890 graphics accelerator to our platforms. This way, the results below do not depend on the potential of the integrated graphics core of the platform chipsets.

The results show that AMD processors will be a better fit for a low-cost gaming system. However, it is important to keep in mind that these results to not match what we have just seen in a 3D game using Flash technology.

Power Consumption

Whenever we talked about energy-efficiency our previous tests showed multiple times that Intel processors were beyond competition. However, we haven’t yet tested the low-end solutions. To make up for this omission we performed a special test session. The numbers below show the total power consumption of the complete tested platforms (without the monitor). During our tests we used 64-bit LinX 0.6.3 utility to load the systems to the utmost extent. Moreover, to ensure that we estimate the power consumption in idle mode correctly we activated all power-saving technologies, such as C1E, Cool'n'Quiet 3.0 and Enhanced Intel SpeedStep.

All testing participants consume almost the same amount of power in idle mode, AMD based solutions being a little more efficient.

However, things change dramatically when the computational processor load increases. Celeron as well as Pentium processors turn out more energy efficient than AMD CPUs with identical performance. And this difference is quite significant and makes almost 20 W. I have to say that this serious power consumption difference is determined particularly by the CPU electrical characteristics, as we see from the power consumption of a CPU alone measured without the rest of the platform.

The numbers on the diagram show the power consumption along the 12 V power line connected directly to the processor voltage regulator on the mainboard. Although this approach didn’t take into account the efficiency of the processor voltage regulator, we have every reason to state that there is a gigantic gap between AMD and Intel CPUs in performance per watt. And this gap is obviously not in AMD’s favor, even taking into account that the memory controller in Athlon II and Sempron based systems is located inside the processor, while on LGA775 platforms it is in the chipset North Bridge. So, lower power consumption of Socket AM2+/AM3 mainboards can’t make up for the low energy efficiency of CPUs on K10 (Stars) microarchitecture.

Although I can’t help pointing out the fact that LGA775 mainboards for Intel processors with integrated graphics consume about 10 W more power than mainboards for AMD CPUs.

Overclocking

Office computers are hardly ever overclocked, but according to our performance tests value CPUs can easily find their way into simple home systems. And it will definitely be of interest to home users whether their platforms can work in non-nominal operational modes.

Nevertheless, we decided to veer away from our traditional overclocking methodology in the today’s test session, as we tried to adapt this procedure specifically for inexpensive home systems. This “adaptation” included two things. First, we didn’t use any high-performance CPU coolers, because their price is incomparable with the price of the low-end CPUs. We used default boxed cooling solutions during our overclocking experiments. Second, we overclocked without increasing the processor core voltage. The thing is that low-end mainboards often do not have the option for that at all. Besides, overclocking without CPU Vcore increase allows keeping all processor power-saving technologies up and running, which doesn’t affect the energy-efficiency of the platform and doesn’t cause any cooling or acoustic issues.

For our experiments we chose two most overclocking-friendly CPUs based on the latest 45 nm cores. They were AMD Athlon II X2 215 and Intel Celeron E3300. Their specifications suggest that they would be the most interesting solutions for overclocking as they offer the best combination of hidden frequency potential and price.

And our supposition proved totally right. The first CPU, AMD Athlon II X2 215 did very well during our overclocking tests. Without touching any voltages, we could easily push its frequency from the default 2.7 GHz to 3.6 GHz.

In this case the overclocking approach was extremely primitive: we simply increased the clock generator frequency from the default 200 MHz to 267 MHz. The only multiplier that we had to lower in this case was the memory frequency multiplier. The frequencies of the HyperTransport bus and North Bridge integrated into the processor increased in proportion to the clock generator frequency, but it didn’t cause us any problems.

As for Celeron E3300 processor, things didn’t go as smoothly. We used to overclock this processor to 4 GHz, but we had to significantly increase its Vcore and use a high-performance air cooler. Now, without any Vcore increase and with just a boxed CPU cooler, we could only get it to work stably at 3.12 GHz, which is, however, 25% overclocking.

To achieve this result we raised the FSB speed from 200 to 250 MHz and changed the memory frequency multiplier.

As for the performance of our overclocked processors, the gain was generally proportional to their frequency increase. However, even though we managed to overclock AMD Athlon II X2 215 by 33% while Intel Celeron E3300 only by 25% didn’t make AMD solution an indisputable performance leader.

Yes, overclocked Athlon II X2 215 is a definite winner in many benchmarks. For example, it performs very well in games. However, there still remain a lot of tasks where Celeron E3300 doesn’t give in and retains a convincing lead.

I would also like to mention a pretty attractive option for economical enthusiasts – AMD Sempron 140. The thing is that these processors are based on original dual-core semiconductor dies, similar to those used in Athlon II X2 processors. From a practical standpoint it means that Sempron 140 may be transformed into a dual-core processor due to a well known trick with ACC technology activation. This is the reason why Sempron 140 may be of particular reason for those users whose budget is extremely tight, but they nevertheless want to have a more or less up-to-date system. Unfortunately, it is not all so simple in reality. Very often low-end single-core processors are built on defective dual-core dies, which can’t work stably with the second core activated. We came across a die like that this time: Sempron 140 available in our lab passed the POST, but couldn’t even load the OS. That is why even though the buying a dual-core CPU in the form of a Sempron 140 processor at a “ridiculously cheap” price may seem like a great idea, it is important to keep in mind that activation of the second core is not a guaranteed 100% success. That is why you can only consider this option as a bonus available to the luckiest users out there.

Conclusion

One of the major goals of our today’s roundup was to show that even the cheapest processors may be a good choice for a desktop platform. I believe this goal has been accomplished successfully: our tests showed that computers built around low-cost integrated platforms proved quite capable of coping with the majority of tasks typical of home and office computer systems. Moreover, I would like to specifically point out that platforms like that offer not only attractive price-to-performance combination, but also boast a number of other useful features: low power consumption, compact size, low noise, etc.

In this respect home users should consider it especially pleasing that contemporary graphics processors have been successfully adapted for “heavy” computational tasks. As you can clearly see, a lot of algorithms dealing with HD video playback and transcoding may be taken over by the GPU and integrated chipsets in particular. As a result, systems built around value processors can be used in a much broader range of tasks. In other words, if you are not a dedicated gamer and do not need a high-performance system for some specific tasks, such as media content creation and processing, then CPUs priced around $50 may become a pretty good option for your needs.

Therefore, public interest in Intel Celeron, AMD Sempron and junior AMD Athlon II X2 and Intel Pentium solutions keeps growing. And today these processors are considered not only by those who buy large quantities of office computers or have very limited budget. But which particular CPU models could we recommend to these economical users?

First, we would like to draw your attention to the fact that although single-core processors are still available in the today’s market, they have become almost completely out of date. Dual-core value CPUs cost only a few dollars more, but boast significantly higher performance in most applications. Second, our tests showed that newer low-end CPUs are always better than the previous generation mainstream ones that sued to be hits back in the days. Therefore, we believe that Intel Celeron E3300 and AMD Athlon II X2 215 would be the best options for an inexpensive computer system. But it is important to remember that these particular models have limited amount of cache memory, which may have a serious effect on performance in games and office applications. Therefore, if your system will be used for resource-consuming tasks like that, then you would be better off checking out a little more expensive AMD Athlon II X2 240 and Intel Pentium E5200.

As for the manufacturer choice, I wouldn’t dare give any definite recommendation at this point, because the chipset and mainboard preferences matter a lot in this case. Platforms on AMD components have higher graphics performance and are more eagerly supported by multimedia software developers. Solutions built with Intel CPUs and chipsets have a completely different advantage: they are considerably more energy-efficient.