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AMD's Opteron 165 and 180 processors

Two cores, one socket, 939 pins
— 12:00 AM on February 23, 2006

AMD'S OPTERON 100 SERIES processors have led a difficult existence. For most of their run, they've been sojourning in the wilderness of single-plug Socket 940 motherboards—a lonely and desolate place, to be sure. They've had to suffer in relative obscurity as their siblings and cousins, the Opteron 200 series and the Athlon 64, have gone on to resounding success. That's gotta damage a chip's psychological makeup.

With the move to dual-core CPUs, though, the Opteron 100 series looks poised for success. After all, if you can get essentially two Opteron processors into a single-socket motherboard, you've got low-end server and workstation nirvana. To facilitate such things, AMD has sought to free the Opteron 100 series from prior constraints by moving some pins around on the underside of the chips. As a result, the new dual-core Opteron 100 processors will drop into a plain ol' Socket 939 motherboard and communicate happily with a pack of unbuffered DIMMs, just like an Athlon 64.

This change has most likely provoked a whole other bundle of pyschological issues—namely, an identity crisis. Take the Opteron 180, for example. With 1MB of L2 cache for each of its two CPU cores and a 2.4GHz clock frequency, the 180 looks for all the world like an Athlon 64 X2 4800+. The main difference between the two? The name, pretty much. Now, that doesn't make the Opteron 180 a bad product—far from it, in fact—but it may never escape comparisons to its Athlon 64 doppelganger.

The Opteron 100 series seems to have developed a tendency to overcompensate as a result of this troubled legacy, and the Opteron 165 is the apparent result. This unassuming processor is among the cheapest of AMD's dual-core processors, with a 1.8GHz clock rate and 1MB of L2 cache. Yet when plugged into an obliging enthusiast-class motherboard, the Opteron 165's overclocking prowess has earned it a rep for being more dangerous than Dick Cheney with a 20-gauge full of birdshot. How do these two dual-core Opteron processors fit into the larger picture, and will they ever find inner peace? Let's see what we can see.

The Opteron 100s up close
Those of you who are unfamiliar with AMD's dual-core Opteron processors would do well to read our original review of these CPUs for a technology overview. All dual-core Opterons share the same basic silicon. Like their multi-socket siblings, Opteron 100 series chips are fabricated with AMD's 90nm process and cram roughly 233 million transistors into 199 mm2 of die area. Unlike other Opterons, though, the dual-core 100 series chips take advantage of the Socket 939 motherboard infrastructure created for the Athlon 64.

The Opterons 165 and 180

In fact, the Opteron 100 line is the love child of AMD's marketing and product segmentation efforts. Opterons are intended for servers and workstations, which do serious business all-day long in enterprise-class environments where they are creating synergies and leveraging vertical integration in a proactive manner, or some such. These are buttoned-down CPUs. Athlon 64s, on the other hand, play video games and handle mundane desktop chores for individual users. So maybe they're pretty much exactly the same chip, but their intended markets are worlds—or at least cubicles—apart.

Some of the better enthusiast-class motherboards can no doubt serve the Opteron 100s relatively well in workstation roles, but for server use, the 100 series still needs its own infrastructure. That's beginning to materialize in the form of mobos like Tyan's Tomcat K8E.

The Tyan Tomcat K8E motherboard

This no-nonsense board features simple ATI Rage onboard graphics, dual GigE LAN ports, an nForce4 chipset, and low-profile cooling that should fit easily inside of a 1U server chassis. Boards like this one should be perfect for low-cost servers and the like.

Our primary interest in the Opterons 165 and 180 today, however, is in workstation use, and so we've elected to test them instead on Asus' excellent A8N32-SLI Deluxe motherboard, head to head against their Athlon 64 cousins.

So, who's the competition?
If you're buying a single-socket dual-core PC processor, you have several options that would compete with these Opterons. As I've mentioned, the Opteron 165 is especially attractive because it's one of AMD's lowest priced dual-core CPUs. As I write, AMD has removed all Opteron 100-series pricing from its price list page in an obvious attempt to foil me, but through the power of our price search engine, I have determined that Opteron 165s are currently selling for about $350 at online vendors.

Intel lets its Pentium processors do battle in the single-socket workstation market, and the Pentium D 930's $316 price tag falls closest in Intel's lineup to the Opteron 165's current street value. The 930 is a brand-new dual-core CPU based on Intel's 65-nanometer Presler core, as in the Extreme Edition 955 that we reviewed last month. However, the 930 rides on an 800MHz front-side bus, runs at 3GHz, and doesn't have the Hyper-Threading capability of the Extreme Edition. Thanks to its 2MB of L2 cache per core, the Pentium D 930 should outperform the chip it replaces, the Pentium D 830.

The Opteron 165's other dual-core competition in this price range is AMD's own Athlon 64 X2 3800+, a 2GHz processor with 512K of L2 cache per core. The X2 3800+ lists at $301 and is selling for about that price online. Obviously, the X2 3800+ offers higher clock speeds at the expense of half the L2 cache compared to the Opteron 165. That's an interesting tradeoff.

The Opteron 165's ace in the hole for PC enthusiasts looking to transgress against product segmentation barriers, however, is its vaunted potential for overclocking. AMD says that Opterons go through more extensive validation than Athlon 64 processors, no doubt because leveraging synergies is not something to be done lightly. Many overclocking types have taken this language to mean that clock frequencies are chosen more conservatively for Opteron 100 chips. I'm not too sure about that, but it does seem that low-end Opteron 100s have shown some uncommon clock speed headroom. That may have made the Opteron 165 a little too popular, however. Word has it that AMD is constraining supply of the Opteron 165 in some distribution channels and instead supplying most 165s directly to larger system builders.

As for the Opteron 180, it's selling for between $700 and $800 at online shops. That puts its price tag a little north of the Athlon 64 X2 4800+, the same chip with a different name. The most direct true competitor to the Opteron 180 is probably Intel's Pentium D 950, a 3.4GHz processor with a list price of $637.

Naturally, we've rounded up all of these competitors for comparison to the Opterons 165 and 180. Let's take a look at their performance.