AMD Phenom gets (a little) faster

AMD has rounded out both the high and low ends of its desktop processor line with three new Phenoms. Though the chips have the same basic design, they are targeted at very different audiences by virtue of frequency, power consumption and price.

AMD has rounded out both the high and low ends of its desktop processor line with three new Phenoms. Though the chips have the same basic design, they are targeted at very different audiences by virtue of frequency, power consumption and price. The Phenom X4 9950 Black Edition--now AMD's fastest quad-core desktop CPU at 2.6GHz--is designed for enthusiasts and gamers. At the opposite extreme, the Phenom X4 9350e and Phenom X4 9150e are much slower (2.0GHz and 1.8GHz, respectively), but they are about as "green" as quad-core CPUs get.

Since the launch of Barcelona last September, AMD has been promising faster clock speeds, but getting there has clearly been a challenge. To reach 2.6GHz, AMD has boosted the TDP, a measure of the maximum power draw, to 140 watts. By comparison, the 2.5GHz 9850BE has a TDP of 125 watts. HotHardware has posted some of the first numbers on the 9950BE, and the results are what you'd expect. It is slightly faster than the 9850BE, and offers similar performance to Intel's 2.4GHz Core 2 Quad Q6600, but it still doesn't match the performance of Intel's faster Core 2 Quad and Core 2 Extreme chips, which extend to 3.2GHz. Like all BE versions, the 9950 is designed for easy overclocking using AMD's OverDrive utility. HotHardware said it was able to crank the 9550BE to 3.1GHz using standard cooling.

Right now both the new 9550BE and 2.5GHz 9850BE are priced at $235, but next week AMD will cut the price of the 9850BE to $205. Eventually AMD will remove the BE designation and features from the 9850 (in fact, the processor price list already reflects this change), but for a short time you'll be able get an easily overclockable 2.5GHz quad-core for about $200. Though AMD hasn't announced it yet, the other Phenom X4s such as the 2.4GHz 9750 ($215) and 2.3GHz 9650 ($195), are likely to get price cuts as well. Still Intel's Q6600 is stiff competition at $199 with a TDP of 95 watts.

AMD announced its first Energy Efficient 65-watt Phenom X4, the 9100e, in March. The 9350e and 9150e, which are based on the newer B3 stepping of the processor, replace the 9100e. Ars Technica tested the 9350e against the 2.5GHz 9850 and, once again, the 2.4GHz Core 2 Quad Q6600. Given its relatively low clock speed, it's no surprise that the 9350e can't keep up, but it does make AMD's Spider platform (9350e, 780G chipset, and Radeon HD 4850) "quite attractive to end-users who want quad-core scaling without a higher monthly bill."

Since there are few mainstream workloads that truly take advantage of multiple cores, however, the customer for PCs based on these slower, but more power-efficient, quad-cores is less clear. AMD says it is designed for two markets: small form-factor PCs, especially for home theaters, and for relatively inexpensive business desktops. By pairing the Energy Efficient X4s with the 780G chipset, OEMs should be able to offer quad-core systems with decent integrated graphics for around $500. HP already sells some desktops with the 9100e, but no major OEMs have announced systems with the 9350e or 9150e yet.

The 9150e and 9350e are priced a $175 and $195, respectively. To make room for them, AMD lowered the prices on the triple-core processors, which previously topped out at $195. The prices now range from $125 for the 2.1GHz Phenom X3 8450 to $175 for the 2.4GHz Phenom X3 8750.

The 9950BE is likely to be the end of the line for the Phenom X4. Given its 140-watt TDP, the current Phenom X4 probably won't reach frequencies beyond 2.6GHz at acceptable manufacturing yields. And most of the company's engineers have already moved on to the 45nm Deneb desktop and Shanghai server processors, which should ship by the end of this year. This straightforward processor "shrink" will not only lower manufacturing costs, but it should allow AMD to reach higher frequencies with its quad-core chips and close the performance gap with Intel at the high-end.