First Tests: AMD's New Phenom CPU Won't Scare Intel

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Discouraging results

AMD's test system scored a 105 on PC WorldBench 6 beta 2, which is significantly faster than the 93 posted by a Polywell 580CF-2900 with its 3-GHz Athlon 64 X2 6000+, though not nearly the 32 percent gain touted by AMD. That's an impressive boost over AMD's previous CPUs, but it's nowhere near enough to make Intel sweat.

Until we can get a Phenom CPU in our labs, we can't make apples-to-apples comparisons, but the test system's 105 score isn't much faster than the score of 96 turned in by the average system we've seen based around an Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 CPU. That's an older chip that goes for $230 from stores like NewEgg. The 2.2- and 2.3-GHz Phenom chips being released cost more than that, and they're at least 300MHz slower than the 2.6-GHz chip AMD allowed us to test.

Still, we're going to have to wait until we can better match an AMD system to an Intel system to give you a definitive comparison of the two company's flagship CPUs. Stay tuned for that.

AMD currently has no answer for Intel's upcoming SSE4 instructions, which may widen the performance gap further in selected applications. On the other hand, unlike Intel's quad-core parts, which are basically two dual-core CPUs using a shared bus interface, Phenom has four distinct cores, which should also offer benefits. Again, however, we'll have to wait until benchmarks are optimized for four or more cores as well as SSE4 before the declaring the final word on those issues.

Platform News

With no way to regain the CPU performance crown, AMD has been trying to focus the media's attention on its peripheral technologies. This isn't all misdirection, since performance in games often relies more heavily on a system's GPU than its CPU.

The new Spider 790FX chip set plays right into that with support for AMD's HyperTransport 3.0 IO bus, which has 20 percent more bandwidth than its predecessor. The 790FX also can combine not two but four ATI 3800 PCIe 2.0 graphics cards on a single motherboard--a technology AMD refers to as CrossFireX. Preliminary tests we've perused online indicate that the performance of these 3800 series graphics cards matches up well with all but nVidia's fastest, and that they have very good power consumption numbers.

According to AMD, motherboards based on its 790FX chip set should be inexpensive when compared with the latest motherboards built for Intel's Penryn CPUs. Spider-based systems could consequently offer an interesting choice for mainstream gamers--don't spend much on your CPU, motherboard, and memory, but combine it with up to four fast but reasonably priced 3800-series graphics boards. The CPU won't be able to compete with similarly priced Intel offerings--especially with mainstream Penryn chips expected to launch early next year--but a quad-Crossifre system could be an affordable gaming powerhouse.

We'll look at whether such a system ends up being a good value as soon as we can get commercially available Phenom and Spider hardware into our labs.

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