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AMD's Athlon X2 BE-2350 processor


The new coolness
— 1:01 AM on June 6, 2007

AS I WRITE THESE words, I'm comfortably reclined in an overstuffed chair in my living room, laptop perched on my lap, sipping on a homemade cafe latte. Sunlight streams in through a window across the room, and every so often, I can hear the shuffle caused by my oldest child turning the page in the book he's reading. All is well, or so it would seem. But in the background, just above the sound of the air conditioning system forcing air through the vents, I can hear it: the ever-so-slight but unmistakable whir of the fans spinning in my home theater PC, piercing the silence like a faint whisper.

I'm sure you're aghast. Why, you ask, should a computing device be audible in one's living room? Good question. The short answer, in my case, is that our HTPC is based on an Athlon 64 X2 4200+ processor that requires a little more relief than passive cooling or inaudibly low fan speeds will allow.

To help others—especially the children, who will think of them?—in living rooms everywhere avoid this tragic fate, AMD has just introduced a new CPU aimed at home theater PCs, small form factor systems, and small-footprint corporate desktops. Dubbed the Athlon X2 BE-2350, this chip has a confusing new alphanumeric amalgamation attached to its name, and what could be cooler than that? Perhaps a 45W thermal/power rating for the processor. The BE-2350 sips power like a mobile CPU but carries a wallet-friendly price tag of under 100 bucks, which might make it an attractive prospect for your next system build.

Especially if you care about the kids.

If not, your cold, calloused heart may be warmed by the news that our BE-2350 sample also overclocks like a mofo. Read on to see how we used the BE-2350 as a low-power processor and then abused it as a high-power one, to the delight of all involved.


A tale of low-power desktop chips
The story of the Athlon X2 BE-2350 begins with another low-power processor from AMD, a version of the Athlon 64 X2 3800+ with a TDP rating of only 35W, which we reviewed last summer. This processor, known fully as the Athlon 64 X2 3800+ Energy Efficient Small Form Factor, fared well in our power consumption testing, besting anything Intel had to offer at the time and promising good things for builders of quiet PCs everywhere. In fact, at 35 watts, this CPU was essentially the exact same thing as a Turion 64 X2 processor, but ensconced in a desktop-style package and ready to drop into practically any Socket AM2 motherboard. What's not to like?

Well, apparently, not much at all. Big PC makers like Dell and HP liked it so much, they ordered up gobs of these chips, handing AMD the kind of success that leads to problems—supply problems. With only so many 35W CPUs to go around and important markets like the mobile space demanding quite a few chips, the 35W Athlon 64 X2 3800+ never did make it into regular supply channels where folks like you and I could buy them. In fact, to this very day, the X2 3800+ EE SFF remains on AMD's price list with a set of asterisks where the price ought to be—mocking us.

AMD is seeking to remedy this situation with a pair of new low-power desktop processors, the Athlon X2 BE-2300 and BE-2350. Rather than giving them a 35W TDP equivalent to many Turions, AMD has backed off just slightly to 45W. The thinking here is that chips capable of operating at lower voltages that would bring them inside of a 35W TDP can go to the mobile market, while others that can't quite fit into that thermal envelope can still serve well as low-power desktop CPUs. With this arrangement, AMD expects to be able to supply ample quantities of 45W BE-series CPUs to PC makers and other channels, including retail boxed processors.

The BE-2300 and 2350 will have some help fitting into their thermal envelope courtesy of AMD's new 65nm fab process. In fact, these CPUs are essentially the same as the Athlon 64 X2 "Brisbane" 65nm processors we've already reviewed, save that those chips come with a higher 65W TDP. Just like them, these BE-series processors have dual cores with 512K of L2 cache per core and are intended for Socket AM2 motherboards. The BE-2300 is clocked at 1.9GHz, and the BE-2350 at 2.1GHz.

More intriguingly, these CPUs are bargain priced. The BE-2300 lists for $86, and you can add 200MHz for another five bucks with the $91 BE-2350. That's cheaper than any variant of the Core 2 Duo, including the E4300 at around $115, despite the fact that the E4300 has a 65W TDP rating. (For what it's worth, we have included an E4300 in our testing for comparison.)

What's with that funky name?
So all of this sounds pretty good so far, but you're probably wondering: what the heck is up with these names? Athlon X2 BE-2350? Is that a motor oil?

Turns out these products are the first fruits of AMD's new processor naming scheme. The old "true performance initiative" numbers attached to current Athlons and Semprons was getting to be more than a little threadbare in this age of multicore processors and new microarchitectures, so AMD finally decided to scrap it. The new scheme is intended to provide more information about a processor at a glance and to confuse AMD's enemies, bringing it victory on the field of battle.


Pay no attention to the "64" on the cap!

Notable by its omission in the new naming scheme is the "64" after "Athlon." Our review sample CPU came with "Athlon 64 X2" emblazoned across its cap, but we've been told to expect the shipping product to have this extraneous number excised. Now that the whole world has seen the wisdom of adding 64-bit extensions in hardware and continuing to use only 32-bit software, AMD figures its work here is done. Thus the simpler "Athlon X2" series is born. This change lines things up with future product names like "Phenom X4," as well.

The series of letters and numbers after that moniker is not entirely random, either. The first two letters indicate the class and power rating of the CPU, with the "E" in "BE" signifying a sub-65W TDP rating. The four numbers after that are divvied up into groups of one and three. The first digit "reflects major increments in processor attributes," according to AMD, and all 2xxx-series CPUs are presently in the Athlon X2 family. The last three digits are intended to indicate relative performance within a given product family.

At least, I believe they indicate relative performance. Here's what AMD says about it: "Increasing numbers within a class series indicates increments in processor attributes." You figure it out.

Incidentally, if the BE-2300 were named according to AMD's old scheme, I believe it would be considered a low-power version of the Athlon 64 X2 3600+, while the BE-2350 would be a variant of the Athlon 64 X2 4000+.

One obvious advantage of the new naming scheme is that it more closely matches what Intel is now doing, especially the final four digits of the model names. This setup may allow AMD to cozy up next to Pentiums and Core Duos with product numbers that suggest similar or better performance. That may be part of what's happening with the BE-2300 and 2350, whose model numbers are just a tad higher than the recently introduced Pentium E2140 and E2160 dual-core CPUs. We probably won't know how fully AMD will deploy this tactic until it announces more details about its naming scheme or introduces more products that use it. For now, the company intends to retain the "plus" model numbers on its existing products rather than renaming its whole lineup.

Now, on to our test results. We have a full slate of performance results for the BE-2350, but we're going to move through them quickly, since the BE-2350 is a low-end, low-power processor with few true competitors. I'll keep my performance commentary to a minimum. We'll then focus more on our energy efficiency tests and overclocking efforts, since those are worthy of some additional attention.