AMD Athlon II X4 620 £76
17th Oct 2009 | 09:00
Quad-core processing for less than a ton? It can't be done, surely?
Oh, but it can, and AMD is showing us the way with the release of the Athlon II X4 620.
Okay, so it may have gone off the rails of its commitment to low-cost computing with the launch of its first DX11 card – the HD 5870 rocking up as it does at around £300 – but setting the balance right here is a quad-core processor, humming happily at 2.6GHz, for just £76.
Now it may not quite have the raw processing grunt of the cheapest of Intel's quad-core CPUs, but is it going to be the sort of difference that's worth the extra £25 to make the step up to the Core 2 Quads?
Like the rest of us, you probably thought the Athlon brand had been retired long ago, what with the Phenom and then Phenom II chips ruling AMD's roost.
But the launch of the Athlon II X2 in June brought the name back to our desktops; that said, the cheapo Athlon II X2 couldn't compete with the dual-core Phenom II which was released at the same time.
Now though, we're looking at a quadcore version of the Athlon II, and it's a marvellous bargain. These 620 and 630 chips are based on yet another core, this time called Propus, as opposed to the dual-core Athlon's Regor.
It's a newly-designed, native quadcore setup, though like the Athlon II X2, it lacks the L3 cache of the Phenom II chips. But it's also designed for the AM3 socket and as such is backwards compatible with the AM2+ socket.
It can therefore be set up with both DDR2 and DDR3 memory. It's also based on the 45nm die size, so it's relatively light in the ol' power draw stakes and pretty cheap besides.
It's this vast range of options that makes the Athlon II X4 such an intriguing processor. It's not going to set the world alight in terms of speed metrics, but it makes the thought of putting together a cheap quad-core DDR3 machine a simple prospect.
It also means you've got an upgrade path no matter which way you turn; and this is where AMD has a massive advantage over its Intel-shaped rivals. Drop this chip into a decent AM3 motherboard and you've instantly got four cores working for you, with the option to pick up a faster CPU when the time comes to upgrade.
The cheapest Intel alternative is the positively pedestrian Q8200, pottering away at 2.33GHz, and that costs just over £100 for the privilege. It will give you the standard massive Intel overclock, but unless you pitch it with an expensive DDR3 motherboard, you're not going to get the same sort of performance you can squeeze out of a similarly-priced AMD system.
So you're looking at the Q8400 as the real Intel alternative, but that's pushing £130 and from this point on, the price/performance figures start to look a little stale. Even the dual-core Intel chips are more expensive than the Athlon II X4, so for budget computing it looks like AMD has truly got it sewn up with this release.
The real alternative, then, has to come internally, so the Athlon II's biggest rival is the Phenom II X2 550. For roughly the same price, that gives you a chip running at over 3GHz at its stock settings, with the possibility of pushing 4GHz with a bit of good ol' fashioned tweakery.
An added bonus with the Phenom II is that some of the chips are essentially quad-core processors with two cores turned off. Now, our sample won't unlock no matter which motherboard or BIOS you care to use, so this is by no means something to count on.
But it's running the full stock of 6MB L3 cache and is a bit of a demon when it comes to standard, non multi-threaded gaming.
In our ArmA II and World in Conflict gaming benchmarks, the Phenom II X2 confidently demonstrated its gaming prowess. Our exclusive ArmA II benchmark is thoroughly CPU intensive, so it was only the Phenom II's higher clockspeed that managed to keep it level with the Athlon II's four cores.
But once we'd pushed the Phenom II's clockspeed even higher, sure enough it pulled away.
Unsurprisingly, though, when it comes to the productivity-based metrics, the extra two cores of the Athlon II X4 showed the dual-core Phenom II up. However, what's more impressive is that when put against AMD's first true AM3 Phenom II, the 810, the Athlon II X4 really holds its own.
The 620 was only three seconds slower in the multi-core Cinebench rendering test, and 0.27GB/s slower in terms of memory bandwidth. The dualcore Phenom II then strolled in almost 40 seconds behind the Athlon II in rendering terms.
In terms of overclocking potential too, the 620 has got a lot going for it. It may not have the unlocked multiplier of the Phenom II X2 550, but we still managed to get the chip running at 3.24GHz without it even breaking as much as a sweat. That dropped the Cinebench time down by a considerable 20 seconds and upped the memory bandwidth by over 2GB/s, proving it to be a thoroughly effective quad-core beast.
So if you're looking for the foundation for a speedy, cheap rig then it really comes down to your usage model. If you're solely after a gaming machine and have no interest in video manipulation or other such CPU-intensive applications, then a dual-core chip is still all you need – and don't let anyone convince you otherwise.
The Phenom II X2 550 is a great budget gaming chip, and the platform still leaves you with the option of an upgrade path once those lazy gaming developers start taking notice of the multi-threaded capability of modern day PCs.
If you're looking for a more rounded PC though – one that can cope with running multiple apps and seriously CPU-intensive tasks, such as rendering – then the extra cores of the Athlon II X4 will surely serve you well.
Granted, it's not as fast as the low-end Intel quad-core chips – the Q8400 renders 13 seconds faster in Cinebench – and doesn't have quite the overclocking potential; nevertheless, it's considerably cheaper and gives your machine that valuable upgrade path, and a fair amount of future-proofing to boot.
Thank the silicon-maker then that the Athlon brand is well and truly back.
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