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AMD's Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition processor

Edging up...
— 12:14 AM on August 13, 2009

Since the introduction of its Phenom II processors at the beginning of this year, AMD has been, uh, chipping away at Intel's performance lead. (Yeah, I wrote that.)

Well, that's sort of true, at least. The Phenom II is a fine processor and very much a match for Intel's Core 2 chips, but it's not really up to the challenge of going toe to toe with the Core i7. Instead, AMD has concentrated on matching up against the Core 2 processors in the middle of Intel's lineup. Thanks to aggressive pricing and some savvy moves, like selling a relatively affordable series of unlocked Black Edition processors, the Phenom II has had some success. In fact, AMD captured three of five spots in our most recent system guide's main configs.

That success is threatened by the imminent arrival of mainstream Core i7 derviatives, code-named Lynnfield, in the next month or so. Before that happens, AMD has decided to position itself a little bit better by introducing a new speed grade at the top of its Phenom II lineup—the reason we are gathered here today—and dropping its prices on some lower speed grades.

Thus we have the Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition, a processor that could compute Pi to an insane number of digits during the time it takes any one of us to pronounce its full name, in part because it runs at a rather high-strung clock rate of 3.4GHz. But mostly because of the name. To reach this lofty frequency, AMD has pushed into heady thermal territory; the X4 965 has a TDP rating of 140W, up a tad from the 125W rating of the X4 955 that preceded it. That's not unfamiliar—some original Phenoms stretched the thermal envelope to 140W, as well—but it is at the limits of what we'd expect on the desktop.

Although the X4 965's power requirements are on the extreme side, its pricing and performance are not. AMD tells us the 965 will list for $245, the same price rung that the 955 Black Edition occupied previously. That puts the 965 in more or less direct competition with the Core 2 Quad Q9550, which lists at $266 but is selling for as little as $220 at major online vendors like Newegg.

Intel still has the upper hand here in a couple of respects. Thanks to its higher per-clock performance, for instance, the Q9550 can compete with the X4 965 while running at only 2.83GHz. And at that lower clock speed, the Q9550 fits into a 95W thermal envelope. In fact, Intel even makes a low-power variant called the Q9550S that has a 65W TDP. (Of course, comparing Intel TDP ratings to AMD TDP ratings always incites a lovely controversy, so we'll avoid putting too much stock in them and point you to our power consumption testing, instead.)

To make the Phenom II X4 965 a little more attractive versus the competition, AMD has uncorked a jug of mad marketing mojo and sloshed it around in various directions. Some has splashed onto major online stores, where AMD says you can expect to see CPU and motherboard discount combos that will save you up to 40 bucks versus full price—and possibly up to twice that with Radeon graphics cards and Corsair DIMMs added to the mix. A few ounces landed on AMD's graphics driver team; they're preparing a new Catalyst 9.8 driver revision that promises performance benefits for CrossFireX multi-GPU rigs on AMD chipsets, an illustration of the purported platform-level synergy the Phenom II has working for it. Along those same lines, the folks responsible for AMD's OverDrive tuning utility have delivered a new round of profiles for popular games (and benchmarks) that will allow the utility to boost clock speeds on one or two cores in lightly multithreaded applications.

When I described this feature to one of my fellow editors, he called it a poor man's version of the Core i7's Turbo Boost, but I prefer to think of it as the oppressed, chain-smoking man's version of Turbo Boost, for reasons that will become clear once we delve into it.

There's also the unlocked upper multiplier to ease the work of overclocking the 965. And I believe there may be a giant, green, inflatable gorilla on the roof at Newegg right now, framed by several lines of plastic flags, but it's hard to see from where I sit.

We'll let you work out what exactly these measures do for the X4 965's value proposition, but we can illustrate how this new processor compares to a whole host of competitors, siblings, and distant cousins thanks to our considerable cache of CPU performance data. In fact, this may be the last hurrah for our latest and rather extensive Vista x64-based set of performance results. Windows 7 is imminent, and I can feel a refresh coming on.