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Gaming System Buyers Guide August 2005 : Processor

 Posted: Wed Aug 31, 2005 10:37 pm   ::   Author: FraZor

Processor

The processor is the obvious starting point of any system - it defines the motherboard socket type, limits the chipset and memory choices and is traditionally one of the most expensive elements of any system. I'm going to cut this choice in two straight away and go for AMD's Athlon 64 range. Why? Well mainly because I'm a gamer and the Athlon 64 CPU's are consistently better performing than their Intel counterparts, plus you get more performance for your money since AMD's chips are a little cheaper than Intel's. Intel recently hasn't been producing chips that perform strongly in games, and their recent motherboard chipsets have been a little hit and mss too. AMD on the other hand have been very enthusiast and gamer friendly of late, and their chips are performing very well for gaming. As this is a guide to building a good gaming or generally high powered rig, I'll also go straight for the upper range of the Athlon 64's, thus socket 939.

cpu_athlon64.jpg

Which CPU?

As I mentioned, this is not an 'if money was no object guide'. So the Athlon 64 FX series are out straight away as they demand too much money for the performance benefits they offer. This leaves the single core Athlon 64's and the dual core Athlon 64 X2's.

People often ask me which core revision to go for. Honestly, it matters very little from a performance standpoint, but it is sometimes useful to know so the rest of the components can be chosen to compliment it. It's probably wise to choose the newest core revision(s), but I wouldn't pay much more over the revision before unless there was a good reason. What matters is the PR rating, which is an indicator of performance. If a newer core had better performance it would naturally have a higher PR rating.

Next up people ask me if they should spend the extra to get the retail version. Well, that's a personal choice. The difference is the packaging and that the retail version comes with a certified heat sink. The heat sink is OK, but nothing special, and there will be much better choices. They also sometimes have a longer manufacturer's warranty, if that's important to you. Personally I haven't ever heard of anyone returning a CPU, but it's always possible.

The Dual-Core debate

cpu_athlon64x2.jpg

Most modern games, and probably most games that are being released in the next 6 months, are written in for single threaded model, and thus will only use one core. The consideration here is that eventually (most people hope and expect) more software and games will make use of multi-core systems. While they currently don't, by all accounts dual-core systems feel much smoother, especially in general Windows tasks. Their benefit is clear when used for CPU intensive tasks like graphics rendering, AV encoding and similar number crunching tasks. I also expect gaming to be slightly smoother too, not as in higher frame rates per-se but as in less dips in frame rate and perhaps less of a performance hit in those games that switch to video sequences or experience long load times between levels. Rumour has it that nVidia is working on a set of drivers that will make better use of these dual-core systems, especially when SLI comes into play, and I'd expect ATI to have something similar up their sleeves, sooner or later. As far as I know there aren't many multithreaded gaming engines on the radar either, not even the mighty Unreal 3 engine as far as I'm currently aware (but do I expect it to have some dual core optimizations), and since all the big gaming engines have been released over the last year or so (i.e. the engines in Doom 3, Half-life 2, Far Cry, UT2004 etc) those software houses won't be releasing new engines for some time. It has come to light that some engines will have dual core optimizations, such as F.E.A.R., but I expect these are just moderate optimizations as compared to the much harder task of writing the games engines for true multithreading (where the real performance advantage lies) in the first place. All of this makes the dual core choice quite difficult.

Overclocking

I do like to casually overclock, but I'm not into serious overclocking. A stable and relatively quiet system is too important to me. If I can push the system without breaching stability or requiring a serious upgrade of cooling, then I'm happy. I'm currently running an Athlon XP 2600+ (mobile) at ~3800+ with quiet air cooling; I know the chip will go to ~4100+ and beyond, but not without loud or expensive cooling. I wouldn't get into overclocking unless you really feel the need. It can be quite dangerous in terms of hardware damage if you are careless and don't know what you are doing. It can also be very frustrating but can equally be very fruitful, if you are lucky.

Comparing the CPU's

So the list of processors is as follows:

ProcessorFrequencyCacheMultiplierPriceShop
Athlon 64 3500+2200 MHz512 KB11x£125OcUK
Athlon 64 3700+2200 MHz1024 KB11x£163eBuyer
Athlon 64 3800+2400 MHz512 KB12x£199TekHeads
Athlon 64 X2 3800+2000 MHz512 KB (x2)10x£220OcUK
Athlon 64 4000+2400 MHz1024 KB12x£220eBuyer
Athlon 64 X2 4200+2200 MHz512 KB (x2)11x£286TekHeads
Athlon 64 X2 4400+2200 MHz1024 KB (x2)11x£319TekHeads
Athlon 64 X2 4600+2400 MHz512 KB (x2)12x£415eBuyer
Athlon 64 X2 4800+2400 MHz1024 KB (x2)12x£529TekHeads

The above table shows the CPU's ordered by PR rating (and unsurprisingly this is the more or less the same as ordering them by price). Note that the dual core processors, being the newest, are commanding a price premium, especially the higher clocked ones that are still quite hard to find. The next table shows a slightly different perspective - how powerful the processors are from a single core perspective. .

ProcessorFrequencyCacheMultiplierPriceShop
Athlon 64 X2 3800+2000 MHz512 KB (x2)10x£220OcUK
Athlon 64 3500+2200 MHz512 KB11x£125OcUK
Athlon 64 X2 4200+2200 MHz512 KB (x2)11x£286TekHeads
Athlon 64 3700+2200 MHz1024 KB11x£163eBuyer
Athlon 64 X2 4400+2200 MHz1024 KB (x2)11x£319TekHeads
Athlon 64 3800+2400 MHz512 KB12x£199TekHeads
Athlon 64 X2 4600+2400 MHz512 KB (x2)12x£415eBuyer
Athlon 64 4000+2400 MHz1024 KB12x£220eBuyer
Athlon 64 X2 4800+2400 MHz1024 KB (x2)12x£529TekHeads

Summary:

So which CPU to choose? If you have the money and you treat your PC as more than just a high-spec console I'd spring for the Athlon 64 X2 4400+, which is the most reasonably priced dual core processor for its speed - while being still fast enough in a single core fashion to hold its own. If you are less convinced by the dual core thing, you would rather save a bit of cash at this point for later components (like a faster graphics card or more RAM) and you are more worried about games now (and in the next year or so), than later, than go for the Athlon 64 4000+. Lastly, for the buyer on a tighter budget altogether, then I'd go for the Athlon 64 3500+ since it's priced a good bit lower than the rest but is still a reasonably capable CPU.

What does the future hold?

In quarter 2 of 2006 AMD plans to release its next round of processors, with a whole new socket called M2. The main difference in the core is that it will have a DDR2 memory controller, so this move to a new CPU socket means a new motherboard and RAM type. The new CPU's will have a higher thermal profile, meaning they can achieve higher clock speeds. It has been said that the Athlon 64 didn't originally need the memory bandwidth of DDR2, but since the release of the dual core chips, the limitation of DDR's lower peak bandwidth is now within scope. I'd expect some technology additions to the new CPU's too, one that re known about are the virtualisation technology 'Pacifica' and the security technology 'Presidio', the latter of which has raised alarms as its closely tied into technologies like DRM. The new CPU socket has been designed to ease the transition for motherboard chipset manufacturers and motherboard makers, as it's relatively compatible. This means that nVidia, ATi, VIA, ULi, etc, won't need to alter their chipsets and the motherboard manufacturers just need to use a slightly different layout, which also means that the motherboards won't be changing or improving much in the coming year either. In short, there's nothing in the pipeline especially important enough to put off purchasing a new system.

In the shorter term AMD will probably release a few more CPU speeds. I'd expect the Athlon 64 X2 4000+ before the year is out (to fill the gap). Similarly I'd expect an Athlon 64 4200+ and 4400+, and an Athlon 64 X2 5000+ and 5200+ too at some point, since their FX rand has shown they can do the clock speeds required for those parts. Also an Athlon 64 FX 59 is quite likely, although they may hold off on that until next years new socket variants. It's rumoured that the FX 59 may well be multi-core too. These are all just speed bumps of course, the socket 939 Athlon 64 is technologically quite mature so I wouldn't expect to see AMD put much more into it these chips other than these clock increases. They'll save the new core revisions for socket M2.



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