Dual-core desktop duel: AMD vs. Intel

AMD and Intel both have dual-core CPUs out on the market, but which chip maker's technology is truly the best? To find the answer, we built two testbeds as nearly identical as we could and ran each chip through a battery of tests.

What would the results of a dual-core desktop CPU fight look like? Many people equate Windows PCs with Intel Pentium processors (and soon will likely be doing the same with Macs), but we've seen dual-core CPU AMD systems power ahead of dual-core Intel-based PCs on more than one occasion.

AMD Athlon 64 X2

AMD Athlon 64 X2
Intel Pentium dual core CPUs

Intel Pentium dual core CPUs

To answer the question once and for all, we set ourselves to a no-holds-barred dual-core desktop CPU fistfight. AMD submitted its five dual-core CPUs, and Intel matched with its lineup of four. We built two test beds as nearly identical as we could for the two platforms and ran each chip through a battery of tests. We then ran those results through our price-vs.-performance calculator to find out not only which is the best overall dual-core CPU in terms of raw performance but also which one offers the most bang for your buck. Skip ahead to the official ruling if you want, but the match itself is interesting.

Round 1: Day-to-day computing
Which chip delivers for the average Joe/Jane?

While dual-core CPUs are primarily meant for heavy multitasking and running multimedia applications, it's not like you're suddenly going to stop using Microsoft Word or other common applications when you sit down in front of a dual-core PC. Our first test, BAPCo's SysMark 2004 benchmark, gauges how well each chip handles the day-to-day rigours of standard office-productivity apps in addition to creating content for the Internet.

The test results are broken down into three scores: office productivity, Internet content creation and overall. We primarily look to the overall score to determine our rating when we use SysMark for desktop testing, but the individual scores are particularly important if you're interested in buying a dual-core CPU for a specific task.

Application performance
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating  
SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating  
SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating  
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+
256 
308 
213 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600+
252 
303 
210 
Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 840
243 
295 
200 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+
242 
287 
204 
Intel Pentium D 840
238 
280 
202 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+
236 
283 
197 
Intel Pentium D 830
226 
263 
195 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+
222 
261 
188 
Intel Pentium D 820
214 
246 
186 

The results are clear: AMD lands a quick combination and takes the first round by placing two of its X2 processors at the top of the charts. Not only is its top-of-the-line Athlon 64 X2 4800+ faster than Intel's flagship Pentium Processor Extreme Edition 840 chip, but the Athlon 64 X2 4600+ also outpaces Intel's best. That result doesn't speak well of Intel's chip that costs as much as AU$500 more than the X2 4600+.

The results scale similarly in AMD's favour as you move down each company's lineup. The X2 4400+ edges out its direct competitor, the Pentium D 840, for example. And at the low end, the X2 3800+ dispatches the Pentium D 820. For day-to-day computing performance, AMD's Athlon 64 X2 chips are the collective winner.




Winner: AMD


    Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7  
  AMD X              
  Intel                

Round 2: Gaming
He who frags fastest, frags best.

AMD

AMD
3D gaming opens up a can of worms for performance testing because it's so commonly associated with 3D graphics cards. The processor does affect 3D performance, however. In order to test our CPUs' 3D capability, we created a so-called CPU-limited Half-Life 2 benchmark, which turns off all of the advanced graphics features, as to minimise the calls to the onboard graphics chip. This lets the CPU do most of the 3D heavy lifting.

CPU limited custom Half-Life 2 demo (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Half-Life 2 1,024x768, no AA no AF  
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+
140.6 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+
131.9 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600+
130.4 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+
123.4 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+
115.2 
Intel Pentium D 840
106.3 
Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 840
104.4 
Intel Pentium D 830
101.6 
Intel Pentium D 820
96.3 

Intel should be embarrassed with its showing in round 2. At every turn, AMD beat it to the punch. Even the Athlon 64 X2 3800+, the lowest end of AMD's dual-core CPUs, is better suited to 3D gaming than Intel's highest-end Extreme Edition 840 CPU, which lost by a full 10 percent.

That said, we should point out that games aren't really designed to take advantage of CPUs with multiple processing threads yet. We expect to see multithreaded games that will take advantage of dual-core CPUs sometime next year, at which point the 3D gaming results will need revisiting (there will likely be new chips available by then, as well). But for now, if you are a gamer in need of a dual-core rig, the only choice you need to make is deciding which Athlon X2 chip to pick up.




Winner: AMD

    Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7  
  AMD X X            
  Intel                

Round 3: Multitasking
Dual-core chips take on apps two at a time.

AMD

AMD
Our SysMark test gauges a processor's ability to work with a series of applications, but it doesn't really give us an idea of how well a CPU handles two intensive tasks simultaneously. That's where our multitasking test comes in. If you've ever run a virus scan on your PC (and we hope you have), you've likely experienced the swimming-in-molasses effect this process has on overall performance. But if you believe the marketing hype, dual-core CPUs are supposed to make virus scanning faster while letting you perform other tasks at the same time without delay.

To test dual-core CPUs then, we employed McAfee's VirusScan to inspect 40GB worth of files, while simultaneously encoding an 85MB video file using a program called Dr. Divx. We then timed how long it took each chip to complete both tasks. The results of our tests skewed heavily in AMD's favour (sensing a pattern yet?).

Multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
McAfee VirusScan and Dr. DivX  
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+
196 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600+
207 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+
207 
Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 840
211 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+
230 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+
233 
Intel Pentium D 840
234 
Intel Pentium D 830
250 
Intel Pentium D 820
263 

The best Intel could place on this test was fourth, with its Pentium Processor Extreme Edition 840 chip coming within 4 seconds of the Athlon 64 X2 4400+. It's also interesting to note that all three of Intel's Pentium D chips finished last on this test. As we saw in the last round with the gaming test, AMD overachieves to the point where even its budget Athlon 64 X2 3800+ chip outpaces Intel's second-fastest Pentium D 840. If you are like most computer users, you have more than one window running more of the time. And if you are like most computer users reading this story, you will draw the same conclusion as we have: AMD's Athlon X2 processors are the clear choice for superior multitasking performance.




Winner: AMD

    Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7  
  AMD X X X          
  Intel                

Round 4: Photo editing
Shake it like a Photoshop filter.

AMD

AMD
Depending on your level on interest in the hobby, photo editing might mean anything from a simple edge crop of a shot from your daughter's wedding to running a wedding photo business of your own. Our Photoshop test represents a task common to many photographers: converting large-size images to Web-appropriate file sizes.

Photo editing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Adobe Photoshop CS  
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+
146 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600+
151 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+
154 
Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 840
156 
Intel Pentium D 840
163 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+
164 
Intel Pentium D 830
168 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+
168 
Intel Pentium D 820
176 

The results of this round mirror those of the first round with our SysMark application test. AMD has a clear advantage with the higher-end chip, and the results get closer as you move down into the mainstream and lower-end chips. AMD's top three X2 chips finished at the top, but Intel and AMD exchanged even blows when we looked at the Pentium D 840, 830 and 820 chips matched up against the Athlon X2 4200+ and 3800+ chips. The round still goes to AMD for the showing by its top three X2 chips, but at least Intel was competitive in this round -- unlike the last two.




Winner: AMD

    Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7  
  AMD X X X X        
  Intel                

Round 5: MP3 encoding
Now rootkit free.

AMD

AMD
If there's one modern multimedia task that affects the broadest swath of people, it might be MP3 encoding. Even though loading music into iTunes from a CD isn't exactly demanding, it's a common enough task that is easy to relate to the test results. iTunes also has the distinction of being a multithreaded application, which means that it's programmed to take advantage of multiple processor threads, making it ideal for dual-core CPU testing.

MP3 encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple iTunes 4.7.1.30  
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+
110 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600+
115 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+
119 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+
125 
Intel Pentium D 840
129 
Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 840
132 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+
132 
Intel Pentium D 830
141 
Intel Pentium D 820
146 

The results from this round are second only to the 3D gaming results in terms of AMD dominance. The only AMD processor that's slower than an Intel CPU is the Athlon 64 X2 3800+, but even that CPU manages to outpace Intel's lower-end dual-core chips, the Pentium D 830 and the Pentium D 820, in ripping an album to MP3 in iTunes, by 9 and 14 seconds, respectively. If you think that's bad for Intel, the difference between the Athlon 64 X2 4800+ and the Pentium Extreme Edition 840 is even worse, to the tune of a 23-second difference, or a whopping 20 percent.

How much more of a beating can Intel take? Will the referee need to step in and stop the fight?




Winner: AMD

    Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7  
  AMD X X X X X      
  Intel                

Round 6: Video encoding
Results with night vision may vary.

AMD

AMD
With products such as Microsoft's Windows Media Center operating system and the video-capable iTunes 6, a computer's ability to encode video will only become more important. That said, we suggest you pay extra attention to these video-encoding scores if you're building a PC with any intent to integrate it into your home entertainment scheme.

Video-encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Sorenson Squeeze 4  
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+
222 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600+
224 
Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 840
237 
Intel Pentium D 840
237 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+
240 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+
241 
Intel Pentium D 830
249 
AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+
263 
Intel Pentium D 820
264 

Intel made its most competitive showing on our video-encoding test. AMD still wins the round, but the difference is not as pronounced as it is on other tests. The Athlon 64 X2 4800+ takes its familiar perch atop the performance chart and both it and the Athlon 64 X2 4600+ stand out from the pack in a noticeable way. The processors in the middle of the performance scale, however, are so close that they're statistically tied, with less than 4 seconds and 2 percentage points between the Pentium D 840 and the Athlon 64 X2 4200+. Perhaps we should no longer be surprised that AMD's midrange chips compete well with Intel's higher-end CPUs, but that AMD's dual-core CPUs have maintained such a consistent streak of high performance should impress even the most adamant of Intel apologists.




Winner: AMD

    Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7  
  AMD X X X X X X    
  Intel                

Round 7: Price. vs. performance
Which CPU has the most juice per dollar?

AMD

AMD
Our price-vs.-performance chart shows just how much performance you're getting per dollar spent. We based our price figures on the suggested prices from each company, but that strategy has a caveat: For AMD, the X2-series chips have per-individual-unit pricing, which you can read for yourself here. Intel, on the other hand, provides only a suggested equivalent price of a chip as if it was purchased in a 1,000-unit lot. And of course both of those listings are estimates of what you'll really find in the market, so while we used the vendor-provided figures for the sake of consistency, we suggest you shop around.

NOTE: This chart is based on US dollar pricing, but expect similar differentials between chipsets in the Australian market.

Price vs. performance

Given the provided prices then, it's plain that Intel can afford to put its 80 percent market share to good advantage, at least with the low-end chips that most people are likely to purchase. At a suggested price of US$241, the Pentium D 820 chip is the least expensive of the bunch. But while lower is generally better on such a scale, keep in mind the balance between the two ratings. The best bang for the buck in our minds is the US$507 AMD Athlon 64 XS 4400+, which beat the US$530 Intel Pentium D 840 on five of our six tests. And on the high end, the US$803 AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+ is the decisive winner, easily taking out the US$999 Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 840 (which, incidentally, we couldn't find for less than US$1,029).




Winner: AMD

    Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7  
  AMD X X X X X X X  
  Intel                

The winner is...

It wasn't even close.

AMD

AMD
After reading the round-by-round account of our dual-core desktop CPU prizefight, it should come as no shock that AMD's Athlon 64 X2 chips are the runaway victors here, laying out the Intel Pentium D and Pentium Extreme Edition 840 chips pins up. If we had to call out one chip, AMD's Athlon 64 X2 4400+ is an outstanding bargain given the competition, but as our results show, any AMD dual-core CPU will serve you better than its similarly priced Intel equivalent.

If you're wondering why there's such a striking performance difference between the two companies' processors, it likely has something to do with the memory controller. Among the technological differences between the two, AMD's memory controller -- the component that sends information back and forth between your system's CPU and the memory--is an integrated part of the Athlon 64 X2's chip architecture. Intel's memory controller, however, exists as a separate piece of silicon on the motherboard. The additional distance between the CPU and the memory controller adds to the processing lag time and likely plays a part in Intel's lower scores.

Whatever Intel's strategy, it doesn't seem to have held up. We're very interested to see what happens when the next generation of chips and chipsets start hitting the market in early 2006. But until then, AMD's Athlon 64 X2 should be your dual-core processor of choice.

Intel test bed
Asus P5N32-SLI Deluxe motherboard; Nvidia Nforce 4 SLI chipset; Crucial 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7800GTX (PCIe); WDC WD740GD-00FLA2 74GB 10,000rpm SATA; Windows XP Professional SP2; Antec 550w power supply

AMD test bed
Asus A8N32-SLI Deluxe motherboard; Nvidia Nforce 4 SLI chipset; Crucial 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7800GTX (PCIe); WDC WD740GD-00FLA2 74GB 10,000rpm SATA; Windows XP Professional SP2; Antec 550w power supply.

CNET Labs project leader David Gussman constructed the test beds and performed all testing.

    Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7  
  AMD X X X X X X X  
  Intel                

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