Introduction

As discussed in yesterday's AMD Phenom II 955 launch article, the new 3.2GHz 955 is now the king of the midrange. Intel Core i7 still owns the very top of the performance pyramid, but the 45nm Phenom II is now our CPU of choice for buyers that can't (or won't) move to Intel's LGA-1366. The Phenom II 955 beat the more expensive Intel Q9550 in application performance and in overclocking performance. Today at least the best processor choice for an upper entry to midrange PC is the Phenom II.

That could change with deep Intel price reductions on Core 2 Quad and Duo processors or possibly the coming introduction of Core i5 processors, but AMD's long catch-up strategy is finally starting to pay off in the latest 45nm Phenom II offerings. With the new 955 and 945, and with Phenom II now the CPU of choice where it competes, it is time to revisit Phenom II system components in an update to our last Phenom II System Buyers' Guide.

In January AMD launched their new quad-core Phenom II processors that were compatible with existing AM2+ motherboards and DDR2 memory. The new Phenom II processors were the first truly competitive CPUs since Intel's introduction of Core 2. The Phenom II 940 and 920, then priced at $275 and $235, performed better than the equivalently priced Intel Q9400 and Q8200. However, the first Phenom II processors support only DDR2 memory and can only be mounted on an AM2+ motherboard. A few weeks later AMD filled out the Phenom II line downward with five new models with integrated DDR3 and DDR2 support. These new AM3 processors could mount in socket AM3 and support DDR3 memory or mount in AM2+ and support DDR2 memory.

As is generally the case, Intel responded quickly with Core 2 price cuts, which we discussed in our Phenom II X4 810 and X3 720 article. AMD followed suit with price adjustments that placed the Phenom II processors at price points where they compete very well with similarly priced Intel Core 2 processors.

Yesterday AMD filled in the top of the Phenom II line. In just three months, Phenom II has gone from introduction to a new socket and expanded socket compatibility. It now provides a complete processor lineup covering the price range from $125 to $245, with stock processor speeds from 2.5GHz quad to 3.2GHz quad. Here's a quick rundown on the Phenom II parts, including the original Phenom 9950.

AMD Phenom Processors
Processor Clock Speed Un-Core Clock L2 Cache L3 Cache TDP Price
AMD Phenom II X4 955 BE 3.2GHz 2.0GHz 2MB 6MB 125W $245
AMD Phenom II X4 945 3.0GHz 2.0GHz 2MB 6MB 125W $225
AMD Phenom II X4 940 BE
(DDR2 Memory ONLY)
3.0GHz 1.8GHz 2MB 6MB 125W $225
AMD Phenom II X4 920
(DDR2 Memory ONLY)
2.8GHz 1.8GHz 2MB 6MB 125W $195
AMD Phenom II X4 910 2.6GHz 2.0GHz 2MB 6MB 95W OEM
AMD Phenom II X4 810 2.6GHz 2.0GHz 2MB 4MB 95W $175
AMD Phenom II X4 805 2.5GHz 2.0GHz 2MB 4MB 95W ?
AMD Phenom II X3 720 BE 2.8GHz 2.0GHz 1.5MB 6MB 95W $145
AMD Phenom II X3 710 2.6GHz 2.0GHz 1.5MB 6MB 95W $125
AMD Phenom 9950 2.6GHz 2.0GHz 2MB 2MB 140W $150

With the latest additions to the Phenom II line, the processors are now achieving what AMD hoped for with their introduction. In testing the new 45nm CPUs are at the worst competitive with the latest Intel Core 2 Quad (Penryn) processors. However, in most cases the Phenom II processors are the top performer at each price point, making the Phenom II the current midrange processor of choice. They are also the first AMD processors in over two years that can also compete with Intel processors in overclocking. In our own tests we were able to overclock to the 3.8GHz range at stock voltage with some Phenom II samples, and we reached 4.2GHz with voltage increases and beefed up cooling. The new Phenom II does exactly what AMD needs it to do to compete and win through the midrange.


The first Phenom II processors, the 940 and 920, feature a DDR2 only controller and an un-core bus speed of 1.8GHz. These two models will be phased out over time. The rest of the Phenom II line is designed for socket AM3 or AM2+ and feature a dual mode DDR3/DDR2 memory controller. Yesterday's 955BE and 945 include an updated core and new stepping, and the new core will eventually find its way into the entire Phenom II line. The new 955/945 are the best overclockers ever from AMD and they reflect a more mature 45nm core that will likely benefit other Phenom II models as well.

Keep in mind that Intel's latest Core i7 is still as much as 30% faster in some applications than the Core2/Phenom II processors, so AMD did not reclaim the ultimate performance crown. However, Core i7 is at present a high-end CPU, with prices starting at $300 and extending to over $1000 just for the CPU. If you're not concerned with overclocking, one alternative for a complete Core i7 system is to just pick up something like the Dell studio XPS. Or if you prefer a bit more flexibility, you might want to look at our last Buyers' Guide. As you approach the upper range of Phenom II performance, we would certainly suggest looking at Core i7, but for now let's return to the midrange.

With AMD now the best performer through the midrange of CPU space, it is time to take a closer look at putting together systems with the latest Phenom II processors. With a broad CPU price range of around $120 to around $245 there are quite a few choices in processors for a Phenom II system. This Phenom II Buyers' Guide looks at three different builds that you might be considering. For builders who want a Phenom II system for as little money as possible we put together a Phenom II budget system. The goal is simple: build a competent and balanced Phenom II system for as little money as possible.

Another typical buyer is attracted to the Phenom II because they want the best bang-for-the-buck. For these buyers we have put together two value systems, one based on the socket AM3 DDR3 standard and another based on the AM2+ DDR2 platform. Value for some means bringing over as many of their current components as possible, and that often means reusing DDR2 memory. With two options buyers can mix and match what they have, go for a new DDR2 720BE system overclocked to the hilt, or go somewhere in between.

Finally, there is the full-blown performance Phenom II system. We hesitate to call this a high-end system, since the most expensive Phenom II is just $245. This is an upper midrange CPU price. Performance, however, is the best you will find with any CPU south of the Intel Core i7. Going along with the CPU, our system components for the performance system are more upper midrange than high-end. That means we will not be pairing the Phenom II with a $1200 30" LCD monitor for 2560x1600 gaming. However, the CPU power is there if you aspire for more. You could definitely use a high-end graphics card and 30" monitor on a Phenom II 955 or 945 or 940 if you choose, and you would achieve superb performance.

Phenom II Budget
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  • DanStp1 - Friday, April 24, 2009 - link

    I have seen on other sites, that the southbridges on AMD chip sets, including the SB750, have poor SATA performance.

    Has AMD done anything to address this?
    In particular I have read about ACHI issues, and NCQ problems.

    Thanks:)
    Reply
  • Gary Key - Monday, April 27, 2009 - link

    I have not noticed poor SATA performance on the SB750. It is typically a few percent lower than the ICH10R in actual applications, but nothing that you ever notice on a day to day basis. As far as ACHI/NCQ problems, I have not experienced them with the SB710/750 yet.

    This includes Linux and Windows installations. I know people have complained about it, but I just have not seen it yet in probably 300+ installs of either operating system. The one problem I have right now is SSD performance is not up to par to the ICH10. AMD is working on a new driver to improve performance as the hardware is fine.
    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Monday, April 27, 2009 - link

    Early AMD southbridges did suffer from the issues you describe. The design and performance has steadily improved with each new generation of southbridge, and AMD has come a long way from the SB400/450 days. I have forwarded your question to our motherboard Editor for more info on the state of the SB750 southbrudge. Reply
  • lefenzy - Friday, April 24, 2009 - link

    Would Anandtech please stop recommending 1080P monitors? LCD manufacturers are tricking consumers by selling screens with less area with this marketing gimmick. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 24, 2009 - link

    I don't see how it's a "trick", since the resolution is clearly stated. If you want to complain about it being "less monitor", I'd be far more upset about all the TN panels now being pushed into budget displays. I've used/tested several, and they're "fine" for most users, but they will never be the quality of an S-PVA, S-MVA, or S-IPS LCD.

    Honestly, if you want a good IPS display at a reasonable cost, what I'd really recommend these days is to grab a 32" HDTV - check it out in person though to make sure it's not a TN panel, because those are showing up as well. Just look at the vertical viewing angles and it should be clear whether it's TN or not.
    Reply
  • MadMan007 - Saturday, April 25, 2009 - link

    Can't fit a 32" TV on my desk nor sit ~3 feet away from it comfortably :p I wrote about the monitors as well. I will say that 1920x1080 is a win over 1680x1050 IF they are similar prices or a bit more and same panel types, at least you're getting more for the money. ex: a 1920x1080 TN for $50 more than a 1680x1050 TN. It's a ripoff when they substitute less vertical space in the same supposed screen size (the diagonal measurement allows them to cheat there) for the same price.

    Where this article fails is in not even mentioning panel types nor aspect ratios, and using a freaking TN in a $1600 system.

    These guides are starting to read more like advertising copy when they push fudged specs rather than informing readers.
    Reply
  • lopri - Friday, April 24, 2009 - link

    Thank you for this wonderful guide. It's been a while since I planned to build a Phenom system, and it looks like I can finally finish it thanks to this guide. I do have a couple of questions.

    1. There are many DDR3 sticks marketed as 'i7 edition'. Is it safe to use those sticks on AM3 platform? (both compatibility and overclocking-wise)

    2. What is the system requirement of AOD (AMD OverDrive)? Does it work only on a board with SB750 or..?

    I am very excited to get a 955BE. Tired of vTT, vFSB, vGTL, vWTFU1Di0t... on Intel quads.. I'd like to play with multipliers, dividers, and timings instead!
    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Saturday, April 25, 2009 - link

    Question 2 - From AMD:

    "This is release V3.0.1 of AMD OverDrive™ Utility.

    This version of AMD OverDrive™ Utility supports systems with the AMD RD890/RD790/RS780/RX780/RS780D/RS880 serials boards.

    AMD OverDrive™ Utility in general is designed to provide users the ability to maximize the capability, flexibility, and adjustability of the AMD chipset products; it allows user to tune parameters to help system stability, optimize performance, and control cooling/acoustic characteristics. AMD’s target is to provide an all-in-one utility which can deliver all-around stellar operation.

    ---System Requirements---

    Operating systems supported are:

    Microsoft® Windows Vista® 32-bit
    Microsoft® Windows Vista® 64-bit
    Microsoft Windows® XP
    Microsoft Windows XP Professional x64 Edition
    Microsoft Windows 7"
    Reply
  • lopri - Sunday, April 26, 2009 - link

    Thank you much, kind sir! Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Friday, April 24, 2009 - link

    Question 1 - The Core i7 memory controller is on the CPU, and it and the motherboard design is the controlling factor for triple-channel, dual-channel, and single-channel memory. The DDR3 memory itself is essentially the same whether used as single, dual, or triple-channel memory. Things are best when matched modules are used for memory.

    Since the Phenom II AM3 supports Dual-channel DDR3 and not triple-channel you are better off buying dual-channel DDR3 kits mainly because if you install 3 dimms your system will run in single channel mode, and if in dual channel you have an extra dimm. However, we have used triple channel dimm kits for Core i7 in AM3 dual-channel setups with no problems. One builder I know buys only triple-channel for the best value and then uses 2 or 3 or 4 or 6 DDR3 dimms - whatever is needed and works on the system - in his builds.

    The other way around is more an issue though, as the Core i7 memory controller can be very picky about the DDR3 you feed it. We know plenty of dual-channel dimms - mostly pre i7 - that work fine on other DDR3 boards, but that do not always play well with Core i7.

    Question 2 - We are trying to find an answer to this one.
    Reply

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