Saturday, January 17, 2009

Seeking A New System

Finally, information is arriving on Phenom II (Shanghai) versus Penryn and i7 (Nehalem). It's time to start thinking about a new desktop.

Generally when I buy a new system I end up getting something 3X more powerful than my old system. However, the last time I bought a new computer I wanted a notebook so I ended up getting a desktop replacement system with a 2.0Ghz mobile Athlon 64 which is only about 67% faster than my old P4 1.8Ghz system. This has put me a little behind so I would really like something about 9X faster than the old P4 to catch up. This requirement would be met with a tri-core of 3.0Ghz or a quad of only 2.3Ghz. There are no X3's available at 3.0Ghz yet but both Intel and AMD easily fulfill the quad requirement. However, I was reminded of Anandtech's past views about processor value after some back and forth with Johan De Gelas.

AMD's dual core Opteron & Athlon 64 X2 - Server/Desktop Performance Preview

"The real problem is that AMD has nothing cheaper than $530 that is available in dual core, and this is where Intel wins out. With dual core Pentium D CPUs starting at $241, Intel will be able to bring extremely solid multitasking performance to much lower price points than AMD"

Athlon Dual Core: Overclocking the 4200+

"The pricing, however, was a little hard to swallow with the range from just over $500 for the lowest-priced 4200+ to around $1000 for the top-line . . .

With the 4400+ sporting 1MB cache on each core, and only a few dollars more than the 512KB 4200+, we would suspect the 4400+ may well be the Dual-Core to buy

Affordable Dual Core from AMD: Athlon 64 X2 3800+:

"and today, AMD is launching it - the $354 Athlon 64 X2 3800+; the first somewhat affordable dual core CPU from AMD.

The cheapest dual core Pentium D processor could be had for under $300, yet AMD's cheapest started at $537. Intel was effectively moving the market to dual core, while AMD was only catering to the wealthiest budgets.

The Pentium D 820, running at 2.8GHz and priced at $280, offered the most impressive value that we've seen in a processor in quite some time

Of course, Anandtech has been leaning towards Intel for so long, I doubt they even remember what they said back in 2005. I suppose this could be why Anandtech never complains about price with Intel's Nehalem or Q9650 as they did (over and over) with AMD's X2. So, a $500 pricetag is "catering to wealthiest budgets", $354 is only "somewhat affordable", $280 is "impressive value", and more L2 cache is better at $44 because this is "only a few dollars more". I suppose someone could argue that inflation has raised the price point since 2005 however this has been more than offset by the decrease in system prices. So, let's see what happens if we use Anandtech's past, vigorously defended (but now apparently forgotten) criteria with today's chips:

We immediately eliminate the Intel i7 940 at $565 and Q9650 at $550 plus anything higher. At first glance, i7 920 would seem to be okay at $295. However, by the time we allow for the extra money required for the more expensive X58 motherboard and DDR3 memory we are again back up to $500, so it gets eliminated as well. This leaves Q9550 and below. However, Anandtech also preferred the 4400+ because it had twice as much L2 cache as the 4200+. This would make it very difficult to choose the $250 2.66Ghz Q9400 with 6MB L2 over the faster $295 2.83Ghz Q9550 with 12MB L2. In fact, the difference in price is almost identical to the difference between the 4400+ and 4200+. And, if double the cache is good at $44 then presumably triple the cache would be equally good at $66. But with only 1/3rd the cache the Q8300 is only $57 cheaper so it gets eliminated too. For Intel this only leaves the $190 2.4Ghz Q6600 with 8MB L2 and the $180 2.33Ghz Q8200 with 4MB L2. So, we have a choice between the outdated B3 stepping Q6600 and the newer 45nm Q8200 with half as much cache.

1/20/2009: The prices changed since I wrote this so I'll amend my comments. The Intel 3.0Ghz Q9650 is now "somewhat affordable" at $350and therefore at the top of the midrange. It is not a great bargain since 20% more money only gets you 6% more performance. Or, at least it does as long as the code can run from the L2; Q9650 shares the same FSB bottleneck as Q9550. The price of Q9550 has hardly change and at $290 is just $5 cheaper than it was. The Q9400 still gets eliminated because of the $50 price difference and half the cache but we retain Q8300 at $205 because it is now $85 cheaper than Q9550.

The problem is that AMD had price drops as well cutting Phenom II by $40. This makes Q9550 less of a bargain since PII 940 is now $55 cheaper. This is enough for a nice upgrade on the video card and to be honest I'd rather have a PII 940 with an HD 4850 than a Q9550 with an HD 4830. The drop in price with PII 920 to just $195 now makes it quite a value and throws a big monkey wrench into Intel's prices. Q9400, Q8300, Q6600, and Q8200 are all now about $45 too expensive. A choice between a cache crippled 2.33Ghz Q8200 for $170 and a PII 920 at 2.8Ghz for just $25 more is a no brainer. On the other hand, a Toliman system would be $50 cheaper again allowing a nice video upgrade.

If I were looking for a stopgap system I might go with the Intel $190 Q6600 or $180 Q8200. The AMD Black Edition Phenoms for $150 these days are also a bargain as is the $119 2.4Ghz 8750 BE Toliman tri-core when matched up with a 750 southbridge. I would be comfortable with any of these chips on a bargain or stopgap system. However, since AMD tripled the L3 on with its newer chips we are again pushed towards the $235 Phenom II X4 920 at 2.8Ghz or the $275 Phenom II X4 940 BE at 3.0Ghz for a midrange system.

I don't usually bother overclocking but this is a pretty simple operation if you match a 750 southbridge with the AMD quads. If I were comparing with the 9950 BE or 8750 BE in terms of overclocking I might give the B3 Q6600 the benefit of the doubt. But in the company of the newer 45nm chips the vintage Q6600 is clearly out of its league in terms of overclocking. Given a choice between the 920 and 940 AMD quads I would have to choose the 940 because its Black Edition unlocked multiplier would make it easier to overclock.

The Intel Q9550 is technically faster however it gets choked by its slower 1333Mhz FSB. To match the AMD 940 it would need 2133Mhz.However, even the still slower 1600Mhz FSB is only available on the insanely overpriced QX9770 for $1,460. Intel integrated graphics still lag behind both nVidia and AMD, so an nVidia motherboard is required for Intel unless I want to add a discrete graphics card from the start. The Dragon platform is the obvious choice for AMD although nVidia options are only a little worse in terms of integrated graphics.

For a discrete graphics card the 4000 series would be the obvious choice for something from AMD (ATI). I would probably be looking at a $140 HD 4850 or the $100 HD 4830 (which is about 75% of the 4850's performance). The nVidia equivalent of 4830 would be the 9800GT at $115 and the 4850 equivalent would be the 9800GTX+ at $165. The problem is that for $165 I can get a 1GB 4850 instead of a 512MB. And, if I move up to the 1GB size of 9800GTX+ I'm at $185 which is only $5 less than the much more powerful HD 4870. The GT260 is more expensive for less performance than the 4870 so it isn't worth considering.

I also wasn't exactly surprised with Anandtech's conclusion in AMD Phenom II X4 940 & 920: A True Return to Competition:

"Compared to the Core 2 Quad Q9400, the Phenom II X4 940 is clearly the better pick. While it's not faster across the board, more often than not the 940 is equal to or faster than the Q9400. If Intel can drop the price of the Core 2 Quad Q9550 to the same price as the Phenom II X4 940 then the recommendation goes back to Intel. The Q9550 is generally faster than the 940"

This conclusion is a bit out of whack since their own data shows that 940 compares favorably with Q9550. I would also guess that 940 would compare even better if Anandtech stopped avoiding mixed testing (for the past two years).

At any rate, I tend to agree with the guidelines that Anandtech used back in 2005. Today, I could easily recommend a Core 2 Quad Q9550 system with Intel motherboard if someone were planning to add discrete graphics anyway or with an nVidia motherboard for its better integrated graphics. An equally good choice would be a Phenom II 940 system with either discrete graphics or integrated graphics on a AMD Dragon platform. An nVidia motherboard would be adequate with Phenom II but if an older Phenom or Toliman were chosen then an AMD motherboard with 750 southbridge would be preferred.

1/20/2009: With the current prices the Q9550 is still acceptable but a worse bargain than a PII 940 system. In other words, with equivalent price it would be nearly impossible to assemble a Q9550 system equal to the PII 940 system. The drop in the PII 920 price has also greatly reduced the value of the lower end Intel quads and I could no longer recommend them even for a bargain or stopgap system. If you have money to burn, the Q9650 is less value for the money but would be an upgrade over a PII 940 or Q9550 system.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Centrino 2 Is Flop Too

I'm still waiting on information about Penryn, Nehalem, and Shanghai for a desktop system. However, things couldn't be clearer for notebooks.

Back in 2006, Intel's Centrino platform had everything . . . except graphics. Even older games and graphic applications would bring a Centrino with its weak G965 graphics to its knees. More recently, Intel began pushing its Centrino 2 platform promising that the 45 series graphics would fix all everything. Intel brags that this platform has the most powerful mobile processor. That is all fine except Intel has come up short again in graphics. This was made pretty clear at

This is how Spore should look (you can click on the pics to open full size). Notice the ripples in the water, the shadows, and the fog in the distant background on this AMD based notebook.

Here is how Spore looks on Centrino 2. Notice the lack of ripples, shadows, and fog.

I'm guessing a lot of buyers aren't going to realize what a turkey Centrino 2 is until they try to run something at home. And, when that happens I doubt they will find much comfort in a good SuperPi score. Personally, I don't want a notebook that is left sobbing and wailing for mommy when faced with a grownup graphics challenge. Unfortunately, Centrino 2 fares just as badly with Second Life and The Sims. Pat says, "To me, playing Spore at high-quality would be the low bar game experience for a notebook you just plowed $699 to $1,599 into."

I couldn't agree more.