Introducing the New Phenom II 980 BE vs. Core i7-920 – value meets performance again
AlienBabelTech is pleased to be able to introduce the Phenom II X4 980 ‘Black Edition’ as it is released. Once again, AMD’s popular 4-core performance chip gets a +100MHz speed boost over the current Phenom II flagship quad-core 975 Black edition. The new flagship quad-core will now move into the $185 price point that the current 975 BE sits at, and existing models will each move down a notch in price.
Just like its predecessors, the Phenom II 980BE is a great general-purpose CPU for enthusiasts and especially for gamers because it has the cores, the cache and the frequency for a wide variety of tasks. ‘Black Edition’ processors continue to come with unlocked multipliers for easy enthusiast overclocking. We are going to focus our Phenom II 980 Black Edition evaluation very specifically on gaming at high resolutions with a GTX 590 using 29 PC games with high details and with AA/AF applied – just as a PC gaming enthusiast might do. And naturally we will overclock our 980 BE hoping to reach over 4.0GHz, something that our Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition can not manage.
AMD wants to point out that although Fusion is here and the Bulldozer platform is expected shortly, they will continue to deliver Phenom IIs for choice, compatibility and excellent compute-per-dollar for desktop PCs. AM3 processors work with current AM3 and AM2+ sockets and are designed to work with upcoming AM3+ motherboards. This new chip is clocked at 3.70 GHz (18.5 x 200 MHz) while staying within the 125W TDP envelope. As the Phenom II CPUs before it, 980 BE is based on the 45 nm “Deneb” silicon and features four x86-64 cores with 512 KB dedicated L2 cache each plus a 6 MB shared cache. It has a dual-channel memory controller that supports DDR3-1333 MHz or DDR2-1066 MHz memory standards and HyperTransport 3.0 support.
“David vs. Goliath” – Phenom II vs. Intel Core i7 in gaming
This evaluation is focused on the Phenom II X4 980 BE in gaming. And we are going to set up a “David vs. Goliath” scenario using the much more expensive Core i7 platform. You can expect to pay at least twice more for the Intel system that we are comparing. The review that we are presenting today evaluates the Phenom II 980 Black Edition versus the Core i7 920 both operating at the 3.7GHz stock clocks of the new Phenom II. We will use the GTX 590 – Nvidia’s $700 flagship dual-GPU video card – as our test card because we are looking at a relatively high-end gaming system – something an enthusiast would likely pair with a Core i7 Processor and 6GB of system RAM.
Normally one would compare the Core i5-2400 to the Phenom II X4 980 BE as they sit at a similar price point. However, we are using extremes to prove a point in gaming – that the video card makes the most difference as long as it is paired with a capable CPU. If you look at just about every other tech site, they compare the Intel CPUs to the Phenom IIs using low to medium details and at low to medium resolutions with 3 or 4 games – something no gamer can relate to. Instead, let’s give you practical gaming results at resolutions you play at – beginning with 1920×1200 resolution which 1080p gamers can also completely relate to. And let’s use twenty-nine (29) games to give you a good feel for what to expect.
Using a $700 graphics card can make for a pretty expensive setup all by itself. What we need to know is if a relatively inexpensive value system can give similar performance to a high-end CPU platform with fast graphics and at high resolutions. Using our GTX 590 should be similar performance-wise to using either $500 GTX 570 SLI or $500 HD 6750 CrossFire; something an enthusiast might well pair with either Core i7 or a Phenom II processor. We want to see if the AMD platform suffers practically in gaming when compared to Intel’s double-priced solution. Also, we might see if 4GB of system RAM holds us back since we are using a 3GB video card – even 1.5GB vRAM eats into Window’s limited address space as just 2GB of system RAM is reserved for gaming.
Widescreen and High-resolution Gaming
Thanks to Eyefinity and Surround, high resolution gaming no longer means spending over $1000 for a 3-inch 2560×1600 display. You can easily find three 1920×1080 displays for $150 each to make a 5760×1080 setup that will work very nicely with our target GTX 590 (or GTX 570 SLI or HD 6950 CrossFire, for much less money). In this case, saving on a CPU platform might prove attractive if the Phenom II system performs similarly to the Intel system.
This evaluation is an update to last November’s Core i7 vs. Phenom II X2 vs. X4 scaling performance analysis using GTX 480 and HD 5870 CrossFire. That article from six months ago was itself a continuation of last year’s “Performance Meets Value” series where we used our GTX 280 and the HD 4870-X2 to benchmark our then brand-new Intel’s Core i7-920 processor against the Phenom II 550 X2 and 720 X3 and also against our Q9550S at speeds up to 4.0 GHz. We concluded that old series where we additionally benchmarked the Phenom II 955 X4 with our HD 4870-X2 and HD 4870-X3 Tri-Fire in “Core i7 vs. Penryn vs. Phenom II with HD 4870-X2 & TriFire” which we published last January, 2010.
Here is our conclusion from six months ago which echoed the previous evaluations:
. . . if you want absolutely the very fastest frame rates with HD 5780 CrossFire – and cost is no object – you will choose the fastest quad-core CPU you can afford and overclock it as far as you can. We also see that as your graphics gets more powerful, generally your CPU needs to also be progressively faster to match it. We noted that there was generally less difference with varying clock speeds and the amount of CPU cores needed with our single HD 5870; results similar to the review we did last year.
We also can see that often the differences are magnified by using the faster GTX 480 and they become even more noticeable with the HD 5870 CrossFire setup. So, future and more powerful video card purchases should always be considered whenever you upgrade your CPU. However, this fact is to be noted. If you are looking for bang for buck now with a single video card of the HD 5870 or GTX 480 class of card, Core i7 is generally overkill for gaming and sometimes it not the fastest solution when compared to our relatively low-budget Phenom IIs.
Today we want to see if anything has changed over the past 6 months and we are expanding on our old reviews with many more new games to benchmark and with more powerful graphics, the GTX 590. And this time for our competing CPU platforms, we are going to include AMD’s new flagship quad-core Phenom II X4 980 BE plus our formerly fastest Phenom II X4 955 to test against our Core i7-920; all tested at 3.7GHz, the new Phenom II’s stock core speed. And of course we will overclock our new CPU to give you even more solid evidence to finally answer the question as to what kind of CPU is needed for really fast graphics in the Spring of 2011.
We are going to test 29 PC games at two of the most demanding wide-screen resolutions, 1920×1200 and 2560×1600 as well as the super-widescreen resolution of 5760×1080 for selected games that use it well. We use 4xAA or 8xAA plus 16xAF and with maximum DX11/10.1/10/9c details whenever it is available and with our Phenom II X4 980 BE at 3.7 GHz and also its maximum overclock that we can achieve to demonstrate framerate scaling with core speed increases. We have also condensed our usual charts so that only one is used for each game that we test.
We are benching with the GeForce 270.61 WHQL drivers; a very solid and stable driver set that brings good performance improvements over the last set. We will now test at 3.7GHz using our Phenom II X4 955 BE in addition to our new 980 BE so as to test both AMD quad-core CPUs against our Intel quad-core Core i7 920 with HyperThreading off. So now we have a very high-performing and rather expensive Intel Core i7 system to set alongside our decidedly value AMD Phenom II X4s.
When we say “performance meets value”, we mean that the Core i7 X58 motherboard, CPU, and tri-channel DDR3 is much more expensive than its Phenom II counterpart. We will also note that although the AMD motherboard’s PCIe graphics bandwidth is limited to 8X + 8X for CrossFire which is half the PCIe bandwidth of the Intel motherboard, our GTX 590 gets the full 16x PCIe bandwidth with both motherboards. So, we naturally ask, is it worth it to buy the Core i7 system even with really fast graphics over the Phenom II system for high-end/high resolution PC gaming?
Before we begin our evaluation, Performance meets Value, let’s look at the Phenom II X4 980 Black Edition’s specifications.
Phenom II X4 980 ‘Black Edition’ Processor:
Model Number & Core Frequency: X4 980 / 3.7GHz
L1 Cache Sizes: 64K of L1 instruction and 64K of L1 data cache per core (512KB total L1 per processor)
L2 Cache Sizes: 512KB of L2 data cache per core (2MB total L2 per processor)
L3 Cache Size: 6MB (shared)
Total Cache (L2+L3): 8MB
Memory Controller Type: Integrated 128-bit wide memory controller *
Memory Controller Speed: Up to 2.0GHz with Dual Dynamic Power Management
Types of Memory Supported: Unregistered DIMMs up to PC2-8500 (DDR2-1066MHz) -AND- PC3-10600 (DDR3-1333MHz)
HyperTransport 3.0 Specification: One 16-bit/16-bit link @ up to 4.0GHz full duplex (2.0GHz x2)
Total Processor-to-System Bandwidth:
Up to 37.3GB/s total bandwidth [Up to 21.3 GB/s memory bandwidth (DDR3-1333) + 16.0GB/s (HT3)]
Up to 33.1GB/s total bandwidth [Up to 17.1 GB/s memory bandwidth (DDR2-1066) + 16.0GB/s (HT3)]
Packaging: Socket AM3 938-pin organic micro pin grid array (micro-PGA)
Fab location: GLOBALFOUNDARIES Fab 1 module 1 in Dresden, Germany (formerly AMD Fab 36)
Process Technology: 45-nanometer DSL SOI (silicon-on-insulator) technology
Approximate Die Size: 258mm2
Approximate Transistor count: ~758 million
Max TDP: 125 Watts
AMD Codename: “Deneb”
*Note: configurable for dual 64-bit channels for simultaneous read/writes
Our Phenom II X4 980 BE overclocked easily to 4.3Ghz by upping the stock multiplier of 18.5 to 21.5 (calculate using the multiplier times the bus frequency of 200MHz to get the CPU core’s clockspeed). We added +.05V to make it completely stable at 1.45V and the core temperatures remained nearly as cool as at the stock settings. However, we could not get 4.4GHz stable no matter how much voltage we dared to use. Naturally we settled on the “free” +600MHz over stock and we ran our benches at 4.3GHz as well as at 3.7GHz to give you an idea of the framerate increase from increasing the core speed.
Please continue on to the next page for the complete hardware and software setup of our platforms – AMD’s Phenom II X4 980 BE versus Intel’s Core i7-920. We shall see what happens when high performance again meets value in PC gaming with fast graphics in the Spring of 2011.