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AMD’s Phenom II X4 980 Black Edition processor

Scott Wasson
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AMD has taken to doing these 100MHz “speed bumps” lately, and frankly, it doesn’t exactly make for compelling theater. When a processor clocked north of 3GHz gains 100MHz and replaces the prior model at the same price, pretty much nada shows up on the ol’ seismograph we have hooked up to the CPU landscape. Yes, AMD just grew little more competitive—or, perhaps more aptly, a little less uncompetitive—versus the Intel juggernaut.

And yes, AMD needs to claw out every inch of space it can muster in this competitive environment, so adding another 100MHz whenever possible arguably makes sense.

Forgive us for not being more excited about watching a two-year-old, 45-nm quad-core adding a few percentage points worth of clock ticks each second. We’re just pretty sure we know what will happen when that puppy steps into the ring with the Sandy Bridge buzz saw: small chunks of Deneb silicon will be flying in every direction in a fine, black mist.

With that illustrious introduction, we give you the Phenom II X4 980 Black Edition CPU. With four cores clocked at 3.7GHz, 6MB of L3 cache, and a 125W TDP rating, the X4 980 is a direct successor to the Phenom II X4 975 Black Edition. The X4 980 deviates slightly from the blueprint by adding 100MHz and coming in at $185, or $10 less than the prior top-end Phenom II X4. AMD tells us the X4 980’s debut will push the the X4 975 down to $175, the X4 970 down to $155, and the X4 965 down to $135. We presume the senior member of the group, the X4 955, will have its case heard before an ObamaCare cost-reduction panel. Say your goodbyes now.

All of those members of the Phenom II X4 900 series, including the 980, are Black Editions, which means you get to picture them wearing trendy, black turtlenecks like Steve Jobs. Really, that’s the major perk. The other, more minor perk? An unlocked multiplier, intended to make overclocking as free and easy as a circa-2005 home loan.

We’ve run the X4 980 through our CPU test suite—you can see the full setup documented right here in our Core i7-990X review—and we figure we might as well drop the performance summary on you immediately. In fact, we’ve compiled an overall performance index based on our test suite, and we’ve mashed it up with the latest pricing from AMD and Intel, for a single image that tells the value story for the current desktop CPU market. Behold:

The move from 3.6GHz to 3.7GHz grants the X4 980 about the sort of advantage you’d expect versus the X4 975—that is, not much. We’ll refer you to our Sandy Bridge review for a full set of test results. Just imagine the X4 980 as a smidgen quicker than the X4 975 in any benchmark we ran.

Even among AMD’s own CPU offerings, the X4 980’s value proposition looks rather raw next to the Phenom II X6 1075T, which also participates in the price cuts today. The six-core 1075T has the same 125W TDP as the X4 980 and, thanks to the Turbo Core feature that the X4 980 lacks, the 1075T’s peak clock speed is 3.5GHz. The 1075T will drop down to its base frequency of 3GHz when all six cores are busy, but its combination of more cores and flexible frequencies gives it a clear lead over the X4 980 in our overall performance index. That tells you something of the X4 980’s flavor; products with lower core counts generally offer higher peak frequencies for the same price, but AMD’s Turbo Core has rendered the X4 900-series’ appeal suspect.

Meanwhile, the $184 Core i5-2400 offers substantially higher overall performance than the X4 980 or the X6 1075T—for the same money, and with a lower 95W power envelope. If you look beyond the overall summary, you’ll find that the Core i5-2400 generally outperforms the X4 980 in workloads that are both lightly and heavily threaded.

Gaming performance
Rather than encapsulate everything into a performance summary and move on, we’ll make a brief tour through our gaming benchmarks, so you can see the practical impact of the X4 980’s faster frequency.

Yep, we’re talking about a frame per second of difference, or sometimes a fraction of that. Our Bad Company 2 test, which involves logging of frame rates during a manual gameplay session, has enough variability that the X4 975 finishes ahead of the X4 980 in the overall average. At the end of the day, the difference between these two processors is imperceptible in today’s games. The only good news here is that both of them can run these games at more-than-acceptable frame rates.

Of course, for gaming, the $117 Core i3-2100 is arguably faster than either of them.

Power consumption and efficiency
The X4 980’s TDP rating of 125W puts in firmly in a higher weight class than its most direct price and performance competitors from Intel, all of which are 95W parts—despite the fact that only the Intel processors have a built-in GPU. Nevertheless, power ratings and true power consumption are tricky and can differ substantially in some cases. Here are our results for the X4 980 against, well, nearly everything.

Our X4 980-based test system draws roughly 20W more when idling and 60W more while rendering than a comparable Core i5-2400-based system. Power draw under load has risen only 7W versus the Phenom II X4 975, but AMD wasn’t exactly winning this fight prior to the X4 980’s arrival.

This puppy isn’t going to win any power efficiency awards for this rendering workload, either. Even the old Core 2 Quad Q9400—which, after all, was fabbed on a fairly similar 45-nm process—is more efficient than the X4 980. Only AMD’s hexa-core Phenom IIs can come close to Intel’s best 45-nm chips, because those Phenoms don’t have to live so far up the voltage/frequency curve.

And then there are Intel’s 32-nm chips, which occupy the top six spots.

Overclocking
Our copy of the Phenom II X4 980 happily overclocked by 500MHz, to 4.2GHz, at 1.5V—only a tenth of a volt above stock. When we tried to push further, our chip was a bit of a tease. It would POST and boot into Windows without complaint at 4.4GHz, but one of the four cores consistently threw an error in our Prime95 torture test. We tried incrementally cranking up the voltage, all the way to 1.65V, but that didn’t help. Despite a tantalizing glimpse at 4.4GHz, we had to settle for 4.2.

The additional 500MHz improves the X4 980’s performance to the point where it gives the Core i5-2400 a true challenge—but the Phenom needs the help of overclocking to get there. Even with the frequency boost, you’d still be better off in most of these apps (which are nicely parallelized) armed with the two additional cores of the Phenom II X6 1075T.

Conclusions
I’m trying to think of an appropriate prospective buyer for the Phenom II X4 980, but I can’t really come up with one. If you are the owner of an existing Socket AM3 system looking for an upgrade in this price range, you really should go for the Phenom II X6 1075T. Yes, the 1075T’s base clock is a little lower, but two more cores and a peak Turbo Core frequency just 200MHz shy of the X4 980’s speed easily make up for that—and the 1075T drew less power under load in our tests.

If you are dying for more single-threaded performance—or if you just want the best all-around CPU—then one of Intel’s Sandy Bridge offerings near $200 would clearly be the better choice. The Core i5-2400 costs the same as the X4 980 and handily outperforms any desktop processor AMD makes, while at about $30 more, the Core i5-2500K is even faster and will let you get your OC on with a fully unlocked upper multiplier, just like AMD’s Black Editions. In between those two is the non-K version of the Core i5-2500, with the same performance as the K-series CPU at $205. We’d pony up the 10 bucks for the unlocked K series, but if you’re really pressed for cash, Intel’s model lineup has you covered. All of these Sandy Bridge processors are more power-efficient than the X4 980, too.

If you’re bound and determined to buy an AMD processor and are looking for a good value compared to the Intel incumbent, we’d suggest looking at the Phenom II X4 840. Yes, the Core i3-2100 is faster in our overall performance index, but the X4 840 has four true cores to the i3-2100’s two, so the Phenom is quicker in many widely multithreaded applications. That chip more than any other today represents AMD’s traditional position as a value alternative to Intel.

All of which leaves us wondering what, exactly, is the point of this little product refresh. Yes, AMD’s top quad-core product is a tiny little bit improved over the prior model, but even in the small picture, nothing much has changed at all.

Update on 5/3/11: AMD provided us with incorrect pricing information prior to the initial publication of this review. Shortly thereafter, AMD revealed a lower (by $10) price for the Phenom II X4 980 and complementary reductions across much of its Phenom II lineup. We have revised the text and value scatter plot to reflect the new pricing in this updated version of the review.

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