In my System Builders Guide I regularly recommend Intel processors for all of my builds. The reason for this is because socket LGA1155 is a lot more scalable than the options AMD has for the consumer, with both FM1 and AM3+ motherboards competing in the same price points, often with the latter ending up cheaper in the long run. I realise that not everyone is a fan of Intel, but for whatever reason you may come up with, there’s no denying that they have the faster and more efficient platform at the moment. That’s not to say, though, that AMD rigs aren’t being built – they are and by the dozen too. So if you’re moving up finally from your old Sempron single-core or your original Phenom quad-core, where can you spend your money best for the most value?
In the low-end brackets there’s a mixture of APU, FX and Phenom/Athlon II offerings floating about, creating a little bit of confusion for the consumer when they’re searching around for their bargain price. APUs integrate the GPU and CPU onto the same die, with the GPU sharing RAM from the DDR3 modules in the DIMM slots. Combined with anything from a Radeon HD5450 to a HD6670, the GPU on the CPU’s die works in tandem with the discrete graphics to provide acceptable, low-cost gaming performance using the power of Crossfire. That said, the Athlon II family is still around in some shops and does provide better performance and I’m only recommending an APU build when socket FM2 rolls around – I don’t want you leave you, dear reader, without some sort of upgrade path like those poor saps still rolling with a LGA1156 build.
FX chips forgo the on-die GPU and focus only on overclocking with unlocked multipliers and a scalable architecture. Most FX chips are still based on the eight month-old Bulldozer architecture, barely a toddler in the computing world but already nearly at the end of its shelf life. Bulldozer’s successor, Piledriver, is expected to hit desktops late this year just before the Christmas rush begins, giving manufacturers and OEMs a chance to get their lineup ready. While they are powerful in their own right, its worth noting that even the highest-SKU FX, the octo-core 8150, is just under par to the Intel Core i5-2500 in terms of performance and price. While the extra cores do help the chip to pull ahead in multi-threaded programs, there just isn’t any single-threaded performance strong enough to keep the chip in the lead. Piledriver will improve single-thread performance by around 15%, but that’s still pretty far away from even Intel’s weakest attempts.
With that said, the cheaper chips do allow AMD system builders to cram more into their rig, although we still have a limited budget to work within. Its always been a value race for AMD rather than performance, and its perhaps fitting that the company recently came out and said so.
Comparing the AMD setup with the Intel build revealed very little price differences, if at all. Performance against the Pentium G630 should be much improved thanks to the third core onthe Athlon X3 and overclocked it should draw up nicely with the performance seen from the more expensive Core i3 Sandy Bridge processors. The components remain the same for the rest of the rig across the two builds, with what’s essentially a slower HD7770 stuck in for a very good price. I doubt this rig will have any trouble running the latest games but upgrade-wise, you’re a bit limited unless a few BIOS updates pop up for the motherboard. Since there are no cheap 900-series boards available these days there’s only socket FM1 and AM3+ on the higher-priced 970-based chipset motherboards to choose from if you’re looking for an upgrade path. That said, those with slightly deeper pockets can bag MSI’s 970A-G46 instead and wait for second-hand or even bargain-bin Phenom X4 or X6 chips to appear in the classifieds.
All in all, though, I’m sad that this is the only option for gamers who prefer AMD chips at this price level. Considering only longevity, this rig pretty much suffers the same fate as the FM1 Llano processors, having a dead-end upgrade path. That said, I’m still running an Athlon X3 445 and I don’t find it useless just yet.
Here’s where things start going a bit skew. On paper (or your screen, actually) we have the makings of a very capable gaming rig: there’s a quad-core CPU that can be easily overclocked, a decent board with both Crossfire and SLI support, 8GB of RAM, a popular mainstream graphics card that will provide great performance over the next three years and the rest is the same as the Intel rig from my June build.
What you don’t see is how the Intel rig will run faster and cooler for the most part in certain games that prefer a stronger CPU. While both the FX-4100 and the Core i3-2125 will be evenly matched, Tom’s Hardware found that certain games like Metro 2033 perform better with the Core i3. Most others don’t have any preference as they are GPU-limited at 1080p and its really down to other things that aren’t game-related that could sway your purchase decision. The Core i3 will run cooler as a result of the more efficient design and doesn’t consume as much power.
The benefits AMD pulls up is the unlocked multiplier allowing the chip to overclock beyond levels that the Core i3 can hope to achieve. However its not the winning card AMD would have hoped, since it doesn’t have features found on the Intel platform like SSD caching, Virtu MVP (coming soon to the FM2 boards though with Piledriver/Trinity) and features like QuickSync. If the company hopes to draw up alongside Intel, its developmental efforts should be concentrated on getting Piledriver’s successors to the 22nm fabrication process and including a GPU on-die for all their chips sitting at 32nm.
This way they draw up with all of Intel’s chips with the same capabilities. Since Bulldozer displayed slightly better efficiency than the Sandy Bridge competitors at launch, it stands to reason that the jump to 22nm along with the improvements expected in Piledriver could have put the company back in the game this year with similar heat and power consumption figures, leaving the on-die APU to fill in the blanks with its faster performance. Sure, Intel would still have a lead, but that’s a lead shorter than what they currently have today. Its up to CEO Rory Read and his engineering staff to make sure that AMD at least minimises the gap between the companies for the desktop next year.