AMD Phenom X4 9850 (2.5GHz)
From a do-it-yourself perspective, we're mostly unimpressed with AMD's new 2.5GHz Phenom X4 9850 quad-core desktop processor. This $235 CPU comes in only $10 less than Intel's comparable quad-core chip, but with noticeably slower performance on almost every one of our tests. Even the new Phenom's unlocked multiplier, which enables overclocking, can't save it, because you can do the same thing with Intel's faster chip. As we said with the initial round of Phenom chips, if the price drops (or if system vendors are able to offer them cheaply), it might look better, but with this performance and at this price, AMD still can't wrest the quad-cord lead from Intel.
The Phenom X4 9850 is part of the batch of higher-end Phenoms that were beset by a "TLB erratum" that delayed their launch and partly explains why we've so far seen only the 2.2GHz Phenom 9500 and the 2.3GHz Phenom 9600. According to AMD, it has fixed the issue in the higher-end chips, which affected data prioritization, and that the X4 9850 is ready to go. In the spirit of a fresh start, AMD has also rereleased the older Phenoms, dubbing them the Phenom X4 9550 and the X4 9650, although neither original model was affected by the TLB bug, and the performance of the new versions is exactly the same as the originals.
The X4 9850, though, features some more technical improvements over the lower-end models, and not just a faster core clock speed. Like the Phenom 9500 and 9600--and past AMD chip designs as well--the X4 9850 has a built-in memory controller regulating the speed at which data moves between the processor and the system memory. It also relies on the HyperTransport 3.0 standard, which links the processor to the various other components in your system, such as the PCI-Express data path for graphics processing. The memory controller and the HyperTransport clock in the earlier Phenom chips came in at 1.8GHz and 3.6GHz, respectively. The Phenom X4 9850 received boosts to 2.0GHz on the memory controller and on HyperTransport to 4.0GHz.
Despite all of that technical tweaking, the X4 9850 still fares poorly on our performance tests compared with Intel's old Core 2 Quad Q6600, which currently sells for almost the exact same price as the X4 9850.
|Rendering multiple CPUs||Rendering single CPU|
|1,024 x 768, low-quality, no AA/AF|
iTunes is the only test on which the X4 9850 was able the beat Intel's Q6600 chip. If music encoding is your passion, perhaps this new Phenom is the chip for you. For everyone else, the Intel chip is the better choice, be it for multitasking, photo editing, video encoding, and gaming.
Perhaps demonstrating awareness that its new chip generally can't beat Intel's older quad-core CPU, AMD suggested that if we look at the complete platform involved in owning a Phenom, we'd find that AMD has a price edge. Because the CPU dictates the motherboard you need to buy, we found AMD's suggestion fair, so we looked into that as well. Over on NewEgg.com, we found motherboards for each chip ranging from $35 to $60. Considering that the price of the CPUs is the same (if you count the $239 OEM version of the Intel chip, $249 if you don't), AMD's claim of a holistic price advantage doesn't hold up.
You could, we suppose, make an argument for the Hybrid Crossfire feature on AMD's 780G motherboards. With that chipset, you get a 3D boost if you also spring for an ATI Radeon HD 3450 graphics card, because it can then work in tandem with the 780G's integrated processor. If 3D gaming is what you're after, though, you'd be better off with either a less-expensive dual-core chip and a better 3D card, or by saving your money to match a faster 3D card to go with your quad-core rig.
Finally, while we always like it when you can overclock a CPU, we can't get too excited about the Phenom X4 9850's overclockability, either. The Core 2 Quad Q6600 has proved imminently overclockable as well, which would further extend its lead over the Phenom chip.
While we remain disappointed in the Phenom thus far, we hold to our caveat from the Phenom 9500 and 9600 that the X4 9850 could become more attractive if AMD can drop the price at retail, or if its pricing to system vendors lets them build competitive Phenom-based desktops. As we've seen in the Gateway FX7020 and the Acer Aspire M5100, Phenoms have already shown up in retail desktops that compare very well with their Intel-based counterparts on bang for the buck. Until that happens, Intel remains the clear choice for anyone interested in building or buying a quad-core desktop with a chip in the $230-to-$240 price range.