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Phenom II vs Core i7: Overclocking Value Comparison

Posted September 9, 2009 by Jake in CPU & Motherboards







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by Jake
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Before we move to the testing, let’s talk turkey for a few minutes: how to pick parts and compare overclocking value performance between AMD and Intel?

With the intent to compare the AMD Phenom II to the Intel Core i7 there must obviously be an attempt to keep the test systems as closely matched as possible, either in terms of money spent or performance capabilities. These are not always the same and sometimes there can be a great disparity. And since we’re looking at overclocking and performance today, we need to keep the perfomance "potential" simiilar; there must be a fundamental understanding that we must compare "like to like", with each platform supporting the ablity to overclock rather aggressively, otherwise there’s no point in examining the differences if you can’t push the envelope a bit. Obviously, there are differences since we’re dealing with AMD vs Intel, and it is impossible to be the same by definition. This, however, is probably the biggest point of contention since there are many variables of choice of processor, motherboard, and memory, the three core components that will differ between the test systems.

We’re not ones to argue semantics and agonize over minutiae, but we still do want to provide as fair a comparison as possible. We know there is a wide range of overclocking components, encompassing various price ranges as well. We went with setups that would represent what an enthusiast would reasonbly use; the hardware had to be capable of pushing some high performance increases, particularly the motherboard. There is no point in comparing an entry-level Core i7 motherboard against a premium Phenom II board (or vice versa), as that does not provide similar features and performance (including overclockability) to consumers. As a result, we’ll be using motherboards that are comparable in terms of ability and performance levels for each respective platform.

We are well aware of both the AMD Phenom II and the Intel Core i7’s overclocking abilities. And with the Core i7’s multi-threading ability, if you are heavily into CPU-intensive tasks such as animations, modeling and rendering, mathematical analysis, and so forth, then chances are you want the best CPU available, regardless of whether you overclock or not, and the cost for that top performance becomes tertiary. However, we are also aware that the vast majority of "regular" enthusiasts (and gamers) do not engage in much workstation-type tasks, if any at all, and certainly not enough to justify their high purchase price, otherwise you’d be using a workstation at the office and not an enthusiast rig at home.

So the question then becomes, "Which Intel and AMD CPU to compare?" Since we’re looking at overclocking value, we must also accept that "affordable" is important, but even more so is "performance for dollar". Further, we are also trying to compare similarly-capable systems, particularly for overclocking. Therefore, we decided to use an Intel Core i7 920, which is by far the most popular Core i7 chip, as well as the most affordable, not to mention it’s a great overclocker. On the AMD side of things, we have a Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition. Now before we hear the guffaws, yes, we acknowledge there are cheaper options out there that also overclock to the level of a Phenom II 965.

However, there are two considerations: first, we mentioned "similar" values, and the Phenom II X4 965 most closely approximates the i7 920 in terms of price, so we went with the 965 in order to keep the value reasonably equal in terms of price and performance. Second, in order to address the "fanboys" out there, we anticipated some outcry that AMD parts would be cheaper which would somehow translate to an unfair comparison. So, we want tackle it head-on and keep things as closely matched as possible and avoid any perception of an unfair comparison. As a result, we went with a more expensive X4 965 Black Edition for this article. We are well aware of the unlocked multipler on the Phenom II and while some may decry that, the fact remains that the purchase price of the Black Edition gets you an unlocked multiplier, there’s no denying that is part of its appeal. However, to keep things "fair", we did NOT raise the multiplier on the Phenom II, instead pushing the bus speed higher. This should address any fanboy or bias concerns; quite frankly, we’re stacking the deck against the Phenom II here since we’re handcuffing it by not touching the multiplier.

However, on the Core i7 side of the coin, an unlocked multiplier will set you back about $1000, certainly killing any notion of "value" for overclocking. So comparing a Phenom II unlocked to a Core i7 unlocked would be a waste of our time and money. Further, we’re performance nuts, but we’re also real-world consumers with our own budgets as well, so we are very mindful of cost, especially during tough economic times. As a result, we’re going to pit AMD’s flagship against Intel’s mainstream (even though they are closely priced on the whole), do some stock speed and overclocked testing, and make some (hopefully) clear observations and blunt conclusions. Plain and simple.

No need to overly complicate things. People often want the bottom line, so we’ll take every opportunity to test the reasonable variables here, look at the raw performance numbers side-by-side, examine the cost differences, and explore a few options that may appear as a result.


With that, let’s look at the overclocking setups and test systems, then get this show on the road.

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