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A bevy of new desktop processors arrives

From $87 to $999

So far, 2009 has been a year of renewed competition in desktop processors, as a resurgent AMD has rolled out portions of its 45nm CPU lineup with reasonable success. For its part, Intel has responded by dropping prices on its own Core 2 processors to remain competitive, while riding high on the Core i7's undisputed performance leadership at the top of the market.

Tighter competition means better choices for consumers, but in technology, it almost always means more choices, as well. That principle was on ample display last week as AMD introduced several new products that essentially complete its transition to 45nm technology. Meanwhile, Intel has countered by quietly freshening up its low-end and mid-range offerings a bit and trumpeting the release of a new flagship CPU, the Core i7-975 Extreme.

With these moves, you have, uh, five.. no, four... wait, maybe it's six different strata of desktop CPUs from which to choose. Not counting the low-power versions. We have new processors to test that fit into... uh, I think four of those categories.

Marketing is hard, folks. Especially when you're on the receiving end of it.

Anyhow, there's much ground to cover. Given the scope of the new releases, we decided to compare June's crop of CPUs against, well, everything we could swing. The result is an enormous roundup of 26 different types of processors, including five new ones. We've poked, prodded, tested for performance, measured power efficiency, overclocked, and considered the value propositions. The only question now is whether I'll pass out before I'm able to finish writing this thing. Should make for interesting times, no?

The new entries, from bottom to top
One of the least expensive chips on our agenda is the most novel. AMD has, at last, produced a native dual-core processor based on its latest technology, and the Athlon II X2 250 is the first incarnation of it. This chip features the same execution core and feature set as the Phenom II, but unlike other recent Athlon X2-branded products, it is not based on a gimpy quad-core chip. Instead, this is a true dual-core, 45nm processor with 1MB of L2 cache per core—and no L3 cache at all. The chip itself is made up of "only" 234 million transistors and fits into a die area of 117.5 mm²—well under half the size of the a Phenom II, by both measurements. Yet this is a true Socket AM3 processor, with support for dual channels of DDR3 memory, HyperTransport 3 speeds of up to 4 GT/s, and backward compatibility with Socket AM2+ motherboards and DDR2 memory.

One would, of course, expect this silicon to become a very popular choice for some high-profile missions beyond the desktop, including a range of laptops and sub-notebooks of various designations.

On the desktop, the Athlon II X2 250 looks like a decent "value dual-core" CPU option, with a core clock speed of 3GHz, a relatively tame 65W TDP rating, and a price tag of just $87. Officially, the Athlon II X2 250 supports DDR2 memory at up to 800MHz and DDR3 memory at up to 1066MHz, but it worked just fine for us with 1333MHz DDR3 memory. Since its new-generation CPU cores should achieve higher clock-for-clock performance than older Athlon processors, and since it starts with a relatively high clock frequency, the X2 250 could be a very nice value in this part of the market.

Gigabyte's MA770T-UD3P

To help illustrate that point, Gigabyte sent us a motherboard it recommends pairing with one of AMD's new dual-core processors, the MA770T-UD3P. Unfortunately, it arrived in Damage Labs too late for our use in testing, but this compact AMD 770 chipset-based Socket AM3 board offers pretty much everything you'd need for a decent system, along with DDR3 support. The price? 89 bucks, American money. In fact, some places online are selling it for even less.

Choosing the parts for the Econobox in our next system guide just got more interesting, I think.

Should a mobo price like that one free up a few dollars in your CPU budget, you might wish to step up to a slightly faster processor. The Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition is intended to fill that role. Pretty straightforwardly, this one really is a Phenom II with two cores disabled. Each remaining core has 512KB of L2 cache, and the two cores share a common 6MB L3 cache. The X2 550 runs at 3.1GHz, with 2GHz HyperTransport and north bridge/L3 cache speeds, and it has a TDP rating of 80W. As AMD's top dual-core product, the X2 550 is also a Black Edition, which means its clock multiplier is unlocked to facilitate easier overclocking. The Phenom II X2 550 lists for $102, so for 15 bucks more than the Athlon II X2 250, you get the L3 cache, another hundred megahertz, and an unlocked multiplier.

The final piece of the 45nm puzzle for AMD is a pair of low-power Phenom II processors also introduced last week. The Phenom II X4 905e ticks away at 2.5GHz, has 6MB of L3 cache, is rated for a 65W TDP, and will set you back $195. If you're willing to drop from four cores to three, the Phenom II X3 705 offers the same basic specs for just $125. We've not yet had a chance to test these power-efficient processors, which will face off against some low-power Core 2 Quads from Intel, but we hope to do so soon, so stay tuned.

The natural counter to the Athlon II X2 would come from Intel's Pentium E series of value dual-core processors. As if in anticipation of the Athlon II, Intel very discreetly let the Pentium E6300 slip into the wild last month. This chip is based on the 45nm "Wolfdale" Core 2 Duo silicon, but with only 2MB of its L2 cache enabled. The rest of the vitals: 2.8GHz core clock, 1066MHz front-side bus, and a 65W TDP. The E6300 is priced just opposite the Athlon II X2 250 at $84. At that price, the E6300 should be a formidable competitor, despite the fact that its name tends to engender confusion with the (quite different) 65nm Core 2 Duo E6300.

The most direct competition for the Phenom II X2 550 would probably be the Core 2 Duo E7400, which is the same thing as the Pentium E6300, only with 3MB of L2 cache instead of 2MB. We unfortunately don't have an E7400 on hand for testing, but it should be only slightly quicker than the Pentium E6300, which is surely the better value.

We do have a Core 2 Quad Q8400 on hand, though, another product Intel released rather quietly recently. We have not been big proponents of past "value quad-core" processors, including the Core 2 Quad Q8200 and the Phenom II X4 810, because their modest clock speeds limit performance in lightly threaded applications, including games. The Q8400 aims to remedy this situation somewhat by bumping core clocks up to 2.66GHz. Otherwise, the Q8400 mirrors its siblings with a 1333MHz front-side bus, 4MB total L2 (2MB per chip), and a 95W TDP. The $183 Q8400's closest competitor is probably the Phenom II X4 940, which lists for $195. The Q8400 steers well clear of the Core i7-920 at $284, so it's positioned nicely as an affordable quad-core option.

Intel has also released a low-power version of this product, dubbed the Q8400S, with a 65W TDP rating for $245.

The CPU hogging all of the attention, though, is Intel's new flagship, the Core i7-975 Extreme. This puppy steps directly into the role of "fastest desktop processor on the planet" courtesy of its quad-core Nehalem architecture and 3.33GHz core clock speed.

Well, clock speed is a tricky thing with a Core i7, thanks to its Turbo mode dynamic clock scaling. In reality, the Core i7-975 Extreme will spend much of its time above 3.33GHz, at up to 3.6GHz in single-threaded applications or 3.46GHz with multiple threads, depending on thermal headroom.

Like the Core i7-965 before it, the 975 has a QPI link speed of 6.4 GT/s.

The 975 Extreme is based on a new D-stepping of Nehalem silicon, which brings additional newness and possibly additional goodness in the form of higher clock speeds at lower voltages, if the rumors are true. Some extra headroom might be useful, since the 975 is an Extreme Edition with an unlocked upper multiplier. The Core i7-975 is indeed extreme, too, with a 130W TDP and a sticker price of $999. As you may know, AMD has nothing yet to compete with the Core i7-975 Extreme, although some interesting possibilities do suggest themselves, don't you think?

If one dollar short of a grand is a little too rich for your blood, you might instead be interested in the Core i7-950, another part of June's bumper CPU crop. With a 3GHz core clock and a 4.8 GT/s QPI link speed, the Core i7-950 essentially replaces the 2.93GHz Core i7-940. Both occupy the same $562 slot in Intel's price sheet, which suggests the Core i7-940 isn't long for this world. The i7-950 should be a minor step up in performance, but obviously not terribly different, which is why we didn't bother testing this speed grade separately.