AMD, Intel budget chipsets go head to head

For years, Intel and AMD have been battling for predominance in the processor/chipset market. AMD's latest plan seems to be to push back on economic grounds -- to offer high-value budget chipsets targeted at the soon-to-be-released Windows 7 systems, and high-performance chipsets that are slightly slower, but much cheaper, than equivalent Intel products. And Intel is firing back.

AMD's new 785G chipset, introduced last month, is designed for the mainstream and budget desktop audience. The 785G ships with drivers designed specifically to work with Windows 7, and several motherboard manufacturers, including Asus, Gigabyte, ECW and MSI, are adopting the 785G chipset to deliver the next generation of motherboards.

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AMD's goal was to compete with Intel's G41 chipset, the company's dominant chipset for the value PC market segment which launched in June 2008. But in this ever changing game of leap frog, Intel quickly came back with the introduction of the P55 chipset and the Core i5 family of CPUs.

Which offers the most bang for the buck? I decided to find out by pitting AMD's new 785G chipset against Intel's G41 and P55 chipsets. I also took a look separately at AMD's Phenom II, a high-performance processor that sacrifices a little of that performance to save some significant dollars.

AMD vs. Intel

When comparing based upon value, price is the determining factor. As a result, I wanted the AMD and Intel combos to be priced about the same.

For the AMD 785G chipset, I chose an Asus motherboard (model M4A785TD-M EVO). Asus' new board is designed for AM3 series processors and has a street price of just under $100, making it very affordable.

To test Intel's G41 chipset, I chose a Gigabyte GA-G41M-ES2H motherboard for comparison, which has a street price of around $80.

To test Intel's P55 chipset, I used the Intel Desktop Board DP55KG, which was the only P55 board available at launch time. The DP55KG is currently available for $210-$240, making it more expensive than the other boards tested here. Lower cost boards using the chipset are set to arrive within a month or so from several manufacturers such as Asus, MSI, DFI and Gigabyte, with street prices expected to be well under $150.

I wanted to compare the three chipsets based upon a dollar-for-dollar basis, so I needed to pick three inexpensive CPUs to keep the pricing consistent. On the AMD side I went with an AMD Athlon II X2 Dual Core processor (3GHz, 2MB L2 cache, 2000MHz bus, socket AM3), which has a street price of around $75. For the Intel G41 test, I chose an Intel Core i5-750 (2.66GHz, 8MB L3 cache, socket LGA1156, 1333MHz bus) which at launch had a street price of about $200. This meant that the P55 chipset CPU/notherboard combo would currently cost about $450, two and a half times more expensive than the AMD 785G and Intel G41 setups.

What's more, the Intel P55 chipset motherboards do not include integrated video. For a video card, I wound up choosing an Asus EAH4350 video card, which has a street price of about $40.

AMD's 785G chipset

The 785G offers a lot of features when incorporated with the Asus motherboard. First and foremost, the 785G chipset provides integrated video via the relatively powerful ATI Radeon HD 4200 GPU, along with 128MB of SidePort memory, which helps to increase performance. That's important, because traditionally most integrated graphics solutions used slower shared system memory to function, which meant less memory was available for your operating system and programs.

Other features include Asus's Express Gate instant-on OS (which is a rebranded version of DeviceVM's Splashtop) as well as four DDR3-1800 memory slots and one PCI-Express x16 slot. Other niceties include one eSATA and five SATA 3.0 ports; Gigabit Ethernet; 7.1 channel audio; D-sub, DVI and HDMI outputs; and an Energy Processing Unit (EPU) for higher energy efficiency.

Intel's G41 chipset

Although it's older than the 985G chipset, Intel's G41 still offers a plethora of features, especially when incorporated into the Gigabyte motherboard. Buyers will find a good array of I/O ports, including DVI-D and HDMI ports. Video comes from an integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X4500, which uses shared system memory.

The board features Gigabit Ethernet, as well as three PCI slots, four SATA 3.0 connectors and a PCI Express x16 slot. The GA-G41M-ES2H also provides energy-saving technology, as well as support for 8GB of RAM using four onboard DDR2-800 RAM slots. Eight-channel high-definition audio rounds out the onboard offerings; the board works with most LGA 775 socket Intel CPUs.

Intel's P55 chipset

Intel's P55 chipset may very well be the most advanced chipset available to the value PC buyer. When incorporated into the DP55KG motherboard, it became evident that the chipset/motherboard combo is geared towards those looking to maximize performance and not skimp on features.

The DP55KG supports as much as 16GB of DDR3 1600 SDRAM memory. It offers 10 channel of 7.1+2 audio, 13 USB 2.0 ports, eight serial ATA (3.0 Gbit/s) ports, two IEEE-1394a ports, one PCI Express x16 slot, one PCI Express 2.0 x8 slot and a pair of standard PCI slots. One standout feature is the inclusion of Bluetooth technology, which will allow Bluetooth wireless devices to be used with the motherboard. This could prove to be a real market differentiator for those that synchronize handheld devices with their PCs.

Going head to head to head

The trick here was to measure the performance of the chipsets, which really comes down to comparing video performance and how well the chipset leverages the processor and main memory. I found the easiest and quickest way to come up with some concrete answers was to build three basic PCs, with components that were very similar.

For example, I used the same Corsair CMPSU-620HX power supply and the same WD VelociRaptor hard drive for all three systems; I also installed Windows 7 RTM in all three.

I had to use different memory, because each chipset used different types of modules. For the AMD and Intel P55 systems, I used 2GB of Kingston DDR3 1600MHz memory, while for the Intel G41 system I had to use 2GB of Kingston DDR2 800MHz memory, which is slower than the DDR3 memory, because it couldn't accept the other.

First, I tested memory performance with CPU-Z, a utility that identifies processor, BIOS and chipset specifics, and tests various memory and CPU performance features.

According to CPU-Z, the AMD system showed 47 nanoseconds of memory latency, while the Intel G41 system exhibited 84 nanoseconds, almost twice as slow as the AMD rig. This shows that the AMD system can retrieve and store data to system memory much faster, improving application performance. On the other hand, the Intel P55 dropped the latency to just 41 nanoseconds, easily surpassing AMD's value combo.

I delved deeper into memory performance using Stream, a freeware utility that measures throughput. With Stream, the AMD system exhibited 12223 Gbits/second of throughput during a copy operation, while the Intel G41 system managed only 5499 Gbits/second, less than half the throughput of the AMD system. The Intel P55 system came in at 11627 Gbits/second, not as fast as the AMD system, but quite an improvement over the Intel G41 system.

DDR3 memory costs about 20% more than DDR2 memory, but that is a small price to pay for a gain in speed of over 50% when comparing the AMD to the Intel G41 system. However, while the speed of the memory did impact performance, the difference in performance between the AMD and Intel G41 systems could not be fully attributed to the speed of the memory alone -- it was also attributable to efficiencies designed into the chipset and how the chipset interfaces the CPU to the memory bus.

For video performance testing, I used Tech ARP's x264 HD Benchmark utility, which measures video encoding performance, and I also checked frame rate performance by using the popular game Left 4 Dead. Using the x264 benchmark, the AMD 785G system was able to encode 38 frames/second into HD video, while the Intel G41 system managed 30 frames/second, about 12% slower than the AMD.

Because the Intel P55 chipset does not include onboard video, it is pretty hard to fairly compare the Intel P55 to either the Intel G41 or AMD 785G systems. Simply put, with a P55 system, if you need better video performance, then just buy a better, more expensive video card. The video card I used with the P55 system was an inexpensive, entry-level card, but the P55 system was still able to offer performance on par with AMD, with a rating of 36 frames/second.

The frame rate test with "Left 4 Dead" rounded out the video and CPU testing, with the AMD 785G able to maintain 37 frames/second, while the Intel G41 system managed 15 frames/second and the P55 system managed 33 frames/second.

Can AMD challenge Intel on the high end?

Intel still rules as far as higher-level processing is concerned. The company has established its dominance with the Core i7 line of processors, which constantly win performance benchmarks and push the processing envelope.

AMD has reacted by challenging Intel's dominance with AMD's Phenom II series, for which the company seems to be seeking buyers who want reasonably high performance at a lower cost.

AMD has upped the performance on the Phenom II by increasing clock speeds and other elements, such as onboard cache and memory controllers. With its latest processor, the Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition, AMD is gambling that potential purchasers will look at cost versus performance and choose AMD's top-of-the-line CPU over what Intel has to offer in the same price range (such as the Core 2 Quad Q9400 and the Core 2 Quad Q9550).

The 965 offers no real surprises -- it simply increases the clock speed to 3.4GHz over AMD's previous top-of-the-line CPU, the 955 Black Edition, which clocked in at 3.2GHz. The 965 BE has a Thermal Design Power (TDP) rating of 140 watts, while the 955 had a TDP of 125 Watts.

What do 15 additional watts of power and 0.2 additional gigahertz of clock speed bring to the table?

I recently built a system using the Phenom II x4 955 Black Edition processor, so testing this new CPU was a simple matter of swapping out the 955 for the 965.

I had already tested the 955 with PerformanceTest 7.0 from PassMark software, so I used the same measure for the new processor. The AMD 965 BE offered a CPUMark rating of 3865, which was a measurable (about 8%) improvement over the 955 BE's CPUMark rating of 3590.

While I expected the 965 BE to be faster -- after all, it did offer an increase in clock speed -- the real news here is that the 965 BE will have an MSRP of $245, which is the same price that the 955 BE was sold for, meaning that you can gain a little more performance without an increase in price.

Conclusions

Raw gigahertz is no longer a true indicator of overall performance. It really comes down to overall chip design. Intel and AMD have chosen very different paths to pursue performance, with AMD looking to cache and other design elements, while Intel focuses on other efficiencies, such as GHz and memory paths.

On the low end, it's evident, based on these tests, that AMD is ready to blaze a trail into the world of budget PCs designed for Windows 7. The company has successfully maintained a value standing, while cranking up performance to challenge Intel.

AMD has accomplished that goal by designing a chipset that is both faster than Intel's G41 and that uses newer technology, such as DDR3 memory. AMD scored in several areas with the 785G chipset, including performance, value and compatibility with new technologies. Intel will need to play catch-up if the company expects to beat AMD in the Windows 7 budget PC market.

Intel has upped the ante with the P55 chipset and Core i5 processor, although at a higher price. Simply put, if you are looking for the most value today, go with the AMD setup. On the other hand, if you're able to wait for Intel's prices to come down, the Intel P55 becomes a viable option, especially if you are looking to invest in a high-performance video card.

On the higher end, while it's nice that AMD is increasing performance, one has to wonder what that means when it comes to competing with Intel. As I wrote in a recent review, AMD's top-of-the-line 965 BE can't hold a candle to Intel's high-performance Core i7 CPUs.

However, things shift a bit if you've got a set budget and you're looking at performance per dollar. For example, Intel's midrange Core 2 Quad Q8200s has the same $245 list price as AMD's 965 BE, but according to PassMark, offers a CPUMark of only 3181, 18% slower in raw CPU performance than the AMD 965 BE. AMD then becomes an interesting choice for a company or individual who needs reasonable performance but needs to keep costs down.

Frank J. Ohlhorst is a technology professional specializing in products and services analysis and writes for several technology publications. His Web site can be found at www.ohlhorst.net.

This story, "AMD, Intel budget chipsets go head to head" was originally published by Computerworld .

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