Intel’s budget fighter: Clarkdale

We’ve had time to get to grips with the amazing performance of Intel’s Core i5 series: the latest addition to what Intel calls the “high mainstream” segment. Unfortunately, the new chips have been priced just out of reach, and a lot of potential buyers have turned to AMD and their value-centric Athlon II range. While cheap quad-cores may have been AMD’s biggest selling point since the arrival of Intel’s Nehalem architecture, they’re pretty-much beated by Intel’s new chips, codenamed Clarkdale.

It's amazing what water-cooling can get you.

Clarkdale is nothing new, really, since all the details have been circulating online for months before its release. However, it heralds a new approach by Intel (and AMD, eventually) to bring all the important bits of a PC together on one chip:  the system-on-chip design, which integrates the CPU, GPU, and memory controller. We saw the beginning of this approach when Intel merged the memory controller with their Core i7 chips back in 2008, surpassing AMD’s design that has been out for years.

Clarkdale now adds the GPU to the mix, but leaves it on a separate 45nm-derived die, along with the memory controller. Some have blamed the decision to have two dies on one SOC for Clarkdale’s high memory latency, but its performance is rather good regardless. We’ll see this design being eschewed next year in favour of the new Sandy Bridge processors, which will integrate everything into the CPU on a 28nm process. But how does Clarkdale perform?

In most scenarios, we see the Core i3 530 overtake AMD’s Athlon II. It also beats Intel’s famous Q6600 by quite a margin, and hangs out with Intel’s Q9400 with ease. But wait… those are quad-cores, right? This is where we see the immediate benefits of the move to the 32nm process: where a low-end dual-core chip surpasses a quad-core in games. It’s confusing but rather marvellous for those who intend to upgrade, because this represents better value for money than Intel’s i5 750. Care to have your mind blown further? The new Clarkdale-based Core i5 661 comes within striking distance of the i7 920. It’s that good.

Image sourced from Anandtech. Click to read their comprehensive review.

But that’s not all: power consumption is down, encryption performance (for the paranoid) is improved as this is now a hardware-accelerated feature, and the onboard GPU is actually pretty decent. The X4500 chip was never any good for gaming or watching 1080p movies, but Clarkdale’s graphics performance often surpasses Nvidia’s 9400 and ATI’s HD4200 designs. It’s enough to run Batman: Arkham Asylum, which is very impressive. But the goodness doesn’t stop there.

Image sourced from Anandtech. Click the image to read their comprehensive review.
Image sourced from Anandtech. Click to read their comprehensive review.

An increase of 0.1 volts allows you to overclock the 530 to 4.3Ghz on a stock Intel cooler. What’s more impressive is that on stock voltage, it can reach 3.8Ghz; water-cooling allows a maximum of 4.9Ghz, albeit with a huge voltage boost.

So, what can we take from this? It’s safe to say that Intel has stopped dragging its feet in the market, and will finally dominate the budget segment again thanks to Clarkdale and its mobile version, codenamed Arrandale.