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Phenom II vs Core i7: Overclocking Value Comparison

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Posted September 9, 2009 by Jake in CPU & Motherboards

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by Jake
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Summary

There is one more type of test we would normally run for CPU testing: gaming results. However, we recently took an in-depth look at gaming performance and corresponding value in our Phenom II vs Core i7 Gaming Value article, which included a full suite of games, at various resolutions, single GPU and Crossfire, at stock and overclocked CPU speeds. It was an exhaustive study, and we recommend you read it for a complete analysis. Accordingly, we won’t regurgiate those results here for several pages; instead we’ll simply tell you that the results were rather surprising, with little raw difference between the AMD and Intel platforms. And when the cost differences were factored in, it then became apparent that the Phenom II setup provided far better gaming value for your money than the Core i7.

When we examined gaming value, however, we found that it was a rather straightforward comparison, apples-to-apples, as it were. Find the framerates at various setups, calculate the differences, and divide by the cost. Done. But when now examining overclocking value, the comparison isn’t quite as straightforward. Benchmarks are both synthetic and real world here, with scores and criteria that don’t easily translate into equal comparisons. Calculating the value of an additional 1,000 points in 3DMark Vantage CPU score, for example, is an exercise in frivolity if it doesn’t mean something tangible. It is easy to tell someone they will get 10 extra frames per second in Crysis at a certain resolution if they use a certain configuration; that is tangible and meaningful. But we suspect telling you that your PassMark score will increase 18%, for example, somehow doesn’t mean quite as much.

So while we don’t necessarily place heavy significance to the synthetic tests, they can give some insight into what is happening in terms of speed and performance. But it is also our opinion that synthetics must be taken into context; they are what they are, and do not necessarily translate into large tangible differences in what most users consider "useful" on a daily basis. We do believe, however, that people care very much how long compressing files takes, or the amount of time it takes to encode music or video, or even render your animations. It is precisely these scenarios in which we place far more significance, and therein lies what is probably a more meaningful answer to today’s exercise.

There are a few observations and conclusions we can draw from this exploration. The first is that the Core i7 tends to chew up the competition in synthetic benchmarks. So if you’re looking to break popular synthetic benchmark records, chances are you’re going with a Core i7 setup. That also means, however, that you are a diehard enthusiast and money is not your primary concern. One the other hand, the second thing we can glean from today’s testing is that when each processor is matched clock-for-clock, the Core i7 again manages to win in most tests, with the Phenom II going toe-to-toe in a few of the tests. We must acknowlege, though, that the Core i7 ends up with a proportionately larger overclock, and posts some impressive numbers as a result.

Another area where the Core i7 excels is in workstation-type tasks: graphics, animations, and renderings. These applications are multithreaded and can harness the hyperthreaded nature of the Core i7 platform, and the performance differences here are significant. In industries such as these, time is money and speed is a paramount concern. So if you’re a workstation user, then you will greatly benefit from the Core i7 setup. However, the workstation market is dominated by corporate clients, so chances are you are not paying for the system yourself; your employer is. Sure, there are some people who use these programs and purchase the system themselves, but that number is insignificant when looking at the overall market.

Now, when we look at overclocking performance and value, we see that the Phenom II and Core i7 can both hit almost equal clock speeds when using air cooling. But we also see that the Core i7 can stretch its legs further when liquid cooling is used. However, this is both good and bad. It’s good because if you want higher performance then it can be achieved, but it does cost more money as a result. When you factor in that the Core i7 core components cost about $265 more than the Phenom II setup, the additional cost of a good water cooling setup will set you back even more, to the tune of $500 total. That is not an insignificant amount.
So depending on what you actually do with that performance increase, $500 may not be a very wise use of your hard-earned cash. Is $500 worth a better synthetic 3DMark06 CPU score? We can’t answer that for you, but we suspect most people won’t think so, and would rather sink that money into another graphics card, or bigger monitor, and so forth.

If you settle with air cooling, the price difference is $265 between the core components of the two platforms, providing much better value within the Core i7 setup but still far exceeding the money for the Phenom II setup. And when we examine the clock-for-clock speeds that were achieved when overclocking with air cooling, we see the the value increases for the Phenom II setup, particularly when viewed against the real world tests.

The results indicate there is a trend when real world (non-workstation) tests are run. The Phenom II excels in just about every one of these tests, from multimedia and communications to compression and productivity. We also know that the Phenom II setup provides very similar performance levels in real world gaming tests when compared to the Core i7. The Intel setup does indeed provide better raw results on the whole, and proves to be a top contender in the overclocking arena and for those who want absolute maximum performance. However, when we look at the performance differences in real world applications, the platforms are far closer than the synthetic tests.

The conclusion here, then, is that unless you’re bent on achieving top synthetic scores or use a workstation for a living, the Core i7 system commands a very stiff premium price for that extra performance in terms of overclocking value. On the other side of the coin, if you love your performance but want to achieve an increase with a modest budget, then the Phenom II is the better option.

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