AMD Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition vs. Athlon II X2 250 £80
4th Jul 2009 | 08:30
The ghost of the awesome Athlon 64 budget gaming chips returns
We all love performance hardware; that's why we're here and that's why you're here. And that's why we all went weak at the knees over the first Core i7 and why we're blown away by the latest spin of the i7-920. But in real terms, it's still a niche market.
Which is why AMD's Phenom II CPUs have managed to bring the processor wing of the company back into competition with Intel, with its affordable range of performance quad-core CPUs, rather than just being a weak also-ran. But with affordable four-core chips out in the wild, surely the release of these two dual-core processors is a retrograde step?
But when there's still such limited support for the extra two cores that these chips' big brothers are packing, there's definitely a case to be made for bringing those CPUs' architecture down to the lower level when the extra cores carry a £50 and £70 price premium on the triple and quad-core CPUs.
Sure, if you're into your video editing and encoding then those extra cores present a worthwhile package for the same performance as far more expensive Core 2 Quads from Intel. As a gamer, though, that extra bit of silicon is about little more than bragging rights.
You see, the list of games out there with serious multi-core support is rather limited, with devs reticent to spend the time, money and human resources coding specifically for the extra cores that have latterly made up such a small percentage of gamers' PCs.
A quick look at the latest Steam hardware survey indicates a shade less than 15% of its gamers running a quad-core system. Sure, the trend is growing – up 7% in the last year – but the vast majority are still running two cores at most. If you're a dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore gamer who sees video encoding and smooth 1080p playback as an unnecessary luxury on their PC, then there really is no need for a high-end quad-core CPU.
And this is the market that AMD is aiming at with the launch of these two chips. As a company that has both graphics and processing arms, it can quite happily point the gamers at these chips and encourage them to spend the money they've saved on a superior GPU.
A faster graphics card is going to have a far greater impact on your machine's gaming performance than the extra cores of a quad-core CPU, and the added bonus is that with better GPUs, you'll pick up better video encoding anyway.
But that's Nvidia crowing about its GPU performance, isn't it? Why would AMD push customers that way? Well, unfortunately AMD's marketing arm isn't particularly good at crowing, so the message about single-digit CPU load under HD playback and encoding via its streaming functionality sometimes gets lost.
But this is about CPUs and two in particular; one a bit of gaming beast and the other, well, not. Somewhat inevitably, the Athlon II X2 is more of a lame duck. The 3GHz clockspeed gives it some credibility, but the locked multiplier means that getting any more juice out of it is a royal pain in the behind.
At around £60, it's only £10-£15 cheaper than it's Phenom II compatriot, but in performance terms it's quite a way behind. The older design and lack of the Phenom II's benefits such as L3 cache makes it a tough sell in the light of the X2 550.
That version, though, has all the benefits of more expensive chips and even trumps the X4 810 in the cache department. That said, though, the X2 550 Black Edition does lag behind both the Phenom II X3 720 and X4 810, the other AM3 chips within touching distance, in our tests.
Apart from in the World in Conflict benchmark. WiC relies heavily on the clockspeed of your processor rather than the core count, so the 550's 3.1GHz pushes it way ahead of both the triple and quad-core chips. Far Cry 2 and the X264 benches, however, are more geared towards multicore performance and show the lacking silicon in stark contrast.
But the secret to how this £75 chip has impressed me so much is in the title. It's that Black Edition moniker again boasting of unlocked multipliers and the overclocking benefits that promises. And it doesn't fail to deliver either. In barely a couple of hours, I managed to push the chip to the brink of 4GHz on air-cooling alone, with only AMD's Overdrive software for company.
For well under £100, this dual-core Phenom II is the perfect partner for a budget gaming PC, giving massive overclocking headroom and performance on a par with more expensive multi-core offerings. With the extra cash on a better GPU, you'd see gaming figures even surpass them. The Athlon II, though, is weaker - too close in cost, but not in performance.
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