*Note: prices may have changed since this review was written.
Both AMD and Intel have decent microprocessor architectures that extend through the low end of the market, though. The question is just how low can you go and still keep much of AMD's K8 and Intel's Core largely intact and would buying el-cheapo models offer significant overclocking headroom, based as they are on designs that ship at much, much faster speeds.
To that end, HEXUS obtained a couple of off-the-shelf retail processors costing around £50. We tell you whether that sum buys you adequate performance, just how well those processors overclock, and how they compare to an Intel Core 2 Duo E6750 - the processor of choice at over double the price. It's budget vs. budget, then. Find out if AMD can win at the value end of the market...
AMD Athlon X2 BE-2350
AMD may not be quite the force it once was at the very high end of the desktop market, with that area dominated by Intel's Core 2 Extreme processors, but its low-end offerings still offer significant value-for-money.
Based on the K8 core and presented in various guises - Athlon 64 X2, Athlon 64, and AMD Sempron - that are differentiated on the basis of execution cores; on-chip cache, manufacturing process; and form-factor, there's something for practically everyone, especially if your purse-strings don't extend to triple figures. Out of the 100+ processors listed on AMD's site, the most interesting, we feel, are the BE-series, comprising of BE-2300, BE-2350, and BE-2400 processors.
|Processors||Clock speed||L2 cache (total)||Voltage||TDP||Process||Price|
|AMD Athlon X2 BE-2400||2.3GHz||1MiB (2 x 512KiB)||1.25V||45W||65nm||£62|
|AMD Athlon X2 BE-2350||2.1GHz||1MiB (2 x 512KiB)||1.25V||45W||65nm||£53|
|AMD Athlon X2 BE-2300||1.9GHz||1MiB (2 x 512KiB)||1.25V||45W||65nm||£49|
Intel Pentium Dual-Core E2160
The words Intel and budget in the same sentence usually implied a wholly castrated processor that was bereft of practically all the performance-enhancing benefits available higher up in the range. Intel had a name for such a puny CPU: Celeron. Now, though, thanks to the performance advances made by the Core microarchitecture and relatively inexpensive production on a mature 65nm process, a sub-£50 retail processor can provide for a reasonable proxy.
The Celeron of today is the Core-derived Pentium Dual-Core processor. The very name will bring shudders to Intel-lover's hearts, intimating that it's based on the under-performing NetBurst architecture, but that's not the case here, as we shall explain.
The recipe for Pentium Dual-Core goes something like as follows: take the groundbreaking dual-core Core 2 microarchitecture, lop-off half the E6xx0-series Conroe's 4MiB L2 cache and turn it in to the cheaper Core 2 Duo E4x00-series Allendale. Look again and realise that it's still not cheap enough. Lop-off half the Allendale's 2MiB of L2 cache - always an effective method by which to reduce costs - and rename the 1MiB L2-equipped processor as an E21x0-series Pentium Dual-Core.
|Processors||Clock speed||L2 cache (total)||Front-side bus||Voltage||TDP||Process||Price|
|Intel Core 2 Duo E6750||2.67GHz||4MiB||1333MHz||1.3V||65W||65nm||£110|
|Intel Pentium Dual-Core E2180||2.0GHz||1MiB||800MHz||1.325V||65W||65nm||£53|
|Intel Pentium Dual-Core E2160||1.8GHz||1MiB||800MHz||1.325V||65W||65nm||£47|
|Intel Pentium Dual-Core E2140||1.6GHz||1MiB||800MHz||1.325V||65W||65nm||£42|
Both budget processors put up decent showings when evaluated at their shipping speeds. We say that with the knowledge that both the Intel Pentium Dual-Core E2160 and AMD Athlon X2 BE-2350 are direct derivations of high-end dual-core design. Sure, there's been a lopping off of cache and clockspeeds are significantly lower than the upper echelons of each respective range, but both , thankfully, aren't castrated designs that suffer on a clock-for-clock basis.
There's a hell of a lot of value to be had when shopping for a CPU with only £50 in your pocket. Intel and AMD both offer decent performance from their Pentium Dual-Core E2160 and Athlon X2 BE-2350, respectively, to run the usual gamut of productivity-based applications with consummate ease: Word, email and basic image-editing was comfortable on a single-core processor, really.
Our testing showed that a 33 per cent increase over default-clocked speed required a 10-minute play in the motherboard's BIOS, as far as the BE-2350 was concerned. Performance increased almost linearly and gave an Intel Core 2 Duo E6750 a fright or two. Opt for the processor, put it on a £50 AMD 770 chipset-based motherboard, add 2GiB of DDR2-800 memory for, say £40, and there's every chance that you will have the guts of a 2.8GHz-plus dual-core system that'll cope with almost anything you throw at it.
Coming back to presently-used sockets and thinking of LGA775, more performance is always better, right? Our off-the-shelf Intel Pentium Dual-Core E2160, running at just 1.8GHz in stock form, can be considered an underclocked Core 2 Duo, so don't let the Pentium nomenclature fool you. Our sojourn in to the world of overclocking highlighted that 3GHz should be a fairly routine clockspeed to hit with the shipping cooler, indicating significant frequency headroom.
Performance, too, is excellent in its overclocked state, often comfortably beating out a £110 Core 2 Duo E6750 - no mean CPU in its own right - in a range of benchmarks. What's more, with cheap-o motherboards now rated to 1333MHz FSB, a 3GHz E2160 falls right into spec. The Achilles heel, we suppose, is the lowly 1MiB of L2 cache that's exposed with applications such as gaming, where execution code doesn't quite fit in, but it's hard to ignore a 68 per cent overclock, right? Thinking of associated budget components, we'd put it on a £55 nForce 650i Ultra motherboard and add the same 2GiB of DDR2-800 memory as the AMD-based platform.
In short, picking the right low-end SKU and marrying it up with quality components needn't cost the earth. £150 will buy you a wholly decent subsystem to replace that four-year-old system that's now beginning to show its age. Then just add in the PCIe-based GPU of your choice for some high-octane gaming action.
There is a clear-cut winner here, folks, and it's you. Intel hammers AMD with the potent mix of technology and low pricing. AMD fights back with inventive SKUs that offer sound price-to-performance ratios. The slugfest ensures that, in the short-term at least, there is great value on offer for those prepared to be creative in building a PC.
For the full length review click here.