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AMD's Athlon 64 3000+ processor

Finally, a Hammer without Pentagon pricing
— 12:00 AM on January 21, 2004

WE LOVE TO COVER the release of hot new processors that run at seventy jazillion megahertz and cost more than a Florida vacation, but everybody knows the real action is down in the middle of the product line, in the sweet spot. No, we're not talking about some semi-veiled reference in a Britney Spears song. We're talking about the point where the supply and demand lines converge at optimum performance, the place where good deals are born and tech know-how can overcome the constraints of a limited budget.

AMD's new Athlon 64 3000+ arguably resides in the sweet spot now, priced at less than $220 for an honest-to-goodness 2GHz "Hammer" microprocessor with a built-in memory controller and true 64-bit computing capabilities. To see how the 3000+ measures up, we've benchmarked it against 11 of its closest competitors. Keep reading to see what we found.

Clawhammer declawed?
The Athlon 64 3000+ drops into a 754-pin socket, just like the Athlon 64 3200+ and 3400+ chips. That means it can support one channel of DDR400 memory, not two like the super-expensive Athlon 64 FX series. Have a look:

Beyond that, the Athlon 64 3000+ runs at 2GHz and is otherwise identical to the Athlon 64 3200+, save one thing: it has half the L2 cache (512K) of the other A64 chips. Hence the lower performance rating than the A64 3200+.

If the array of AMD Hammer variants has you confused, you're not alone. AMD is using its model number pricing mojo to segment its product line according to some unconventional measures, like cache size and number of memory channels, instead of just clock frequency. It's bewildering, especially because memory bandwidth and cache size don't always affect performance in a given task. The table below will bring you up to speed on AMD's current lineup of Athlon 64 chips.

Processor Clock speedMemory channelsL2 cachePrice
Athlon 64 3000+2.0GHz1512KB$218
Athlon 64 3200+2.0GHz11MB$278
Athlon 64 3400+2.2GHz11MB$417
Opteron 1462.0GHz21MB$438
Athlon 64 FX-512.2GHz21MB$733
Opteron 1482.2GHz21MB$733

One wonders how long AMD will be able to sustain this fine-grained model distribution strategy. The model number rating system has given the company additional flexibility, but AMD risks straining the credibility of its rating system by selling three different 2GHz Hammer models at different prices. For many tasks, they will perform almost identically.

The most important thing you need to know about all of this, of course, is that the A64 3000+ costs half as much as the most expensive 2GHz Hammer, the Opteron 146, and sixty bucks less than the A64 3200+. Hence the A64 3000+'s residency in the proverbial sweet spot.

A few test notes
Last time out, when we reviewed the Athlon 64 3400+, a compatibility problem with the MSI K8T Neo motherboard and the Corsair DIMMs we used for testing prevented us from running the 754-pin Athlon 64 chips with 1GB of memory. They were stuck with 768MB, while our comparative systems all had 1GB of RAM. Since then, Corsair and MSI have resolved the problem, so we have new results with 1GB memory for the Athlon 64 3200+ and 3400+, as well as the 3000+. (For the record, the fix was a new BIOS for the K8T Neo. The BIOS was possibly reading the aggressive SPD on the Corsair RAM and trying to boot at that speed, despite any manual BIOS settings.)

Not only that, but we've retested the Opteron 146 with CAS 2 memory, bringing it up to speed with the rest of the pack. Because we are comparing five different variants of the same chip at two different clock speeds, we figured the extra time retesting everything would be especially well spent. Given how close some of the results are, I think you'll agree.