AMD Athlon II X2 250 Processor Review Page: 1
Introduction
 
In June of this year, AMD launched it's budget/mainstream line of processors named Athlon II. Asleep already? If so, I urge you to try and tune in once more as it is a rather important product family. As the name may suggest, no it certainly won't set the world on fire with it's performance but who would it expect it to do so? The main criteria of a successful mainstream processor is to offer a very high level of performance given it's retail price. Whether you're someone who is looking to buy a budget system prebuilt from a high street retailer or whether you're a DIY Systems Builder who simply has to build to a budget, these releases are very important indeed. This combined with AMD's typically lower ownership costs as well as the decline of DDR3 pricing could make for some rather interesting results. Let's take a closer look at the Athlon II X2 250 processor
 
Processor AMD Athlon II X2 250 AMD Phenom II X2 550BE AMD Phenom II X4 955BE
Core Regor
Callisto
(Crippled Deneb Quad)
Deneb
Clock Speed 3000MHz 3100MHz 3200MHz
L2 Cache 2 x 1024kB 2 x 512kB 4 x 512kB
L3 Cache n/a 6144kB 6144kB
Price / £ £55 £75 £145
 
The AMD Athlon II X2 250, is currently the fastest processor of it's product family. As you may have observed, the Athlon II sports a new core. While it has many similarities with the AMD Phenom II "Deneb" core, it has absolutely no Level 3 cache but instead has two dedicated banks of 1024kB Level 2 cache, an increase from the 512kB per core found on Phenom II. While the loss of so much Level 3 cache would surely hamper the processor's performance in certain applications, the increase in Level 2 cache does compensate somewhat. The main advantage of this arrangement means that the size of the core has decreased, making it cheaper to produce and also allows the processor to sit in the lower 65W TDP envelope. The only other advantage is from AMD's point of view, in that they don't have to speed bin and cripple perfectly good Deneb Quad Cores in order to meet a quota of lower end stock. Speaking of price, this 3.00GHz unit weighs in at just £55. On paper, this sounds like a fairly reasonable proposition but with this comes our testing theory...
 
It's all well and good that this processor is designed to be a somewhat no frills, cheap and cheerful unit compared to it's more powerful siblings. But how close does this processor get to popular, proven but more expensive units such as...let's say the Core 2 Duo E8400? This could be argued as a rather unfair test and I'm sure that some of you might well be raising an eyebrow about now. Nothing is impossible however and even though this particular processor may resemble an AMD Athlon 64 X2 processor due to it's lack of Level 3 Cache, one would be tempted to say that it'd be a rather interesting battle. Interesting it shall be and on that bomb shell I shall say no more until our testbeds are spooled up and ready to go!
 
AMD Testbed
Intel Testbed
AMD Athlon II X2 250 3.00GHz
Gigabyte MA770T UD3P Socket AM3
4GB Corsair DDR3-1333 RAM
nVidia GeForce 8800GT 512mb GDDR3 (Forceware 190.38)
320GB Samsung HD322HJ "F1" 7200RPM HDD
LG 22x DVD+/-RW
Windows Vista Home Premium
Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 3.00GHz
Foxconn BlackOps X48 LGA775
4GB Corsair DDR3-1333 RAM
nVidia GeForce 8800GT 512mb GDDR3 (Forceware 190.38)
320GB Samsung HD322HJ "F1" 7200RPM HDD
LG 22x DVD+/-RW
Windows Vista Home Premium
 
 
Overclocking
 
Overclocking the AMD Athlon II is not particularly difficult but there is more to think about when compared to the equivalent Core 2 Duo setup. Overclocking a Core 2 Duo would usually involve reducing the initial memory speed and simply ramping up the Front Side Bus speed until it can't take anymore, at which point you may consider voltage increases to push further. On the AMD Phenom II platform, we have a Hypertransport Base Frequency, which acts as the variable that you raise to overclock. Then we have a multiplier that derives the overall Hypertransport Link Speed, which you may need to regulate in order to reach a higher clock speed. Then finally, we also have a multiplier that derives a Northbridge Frequency, something that you want as high as possible to get the most out of your processor. Unlike AMD's "Black Edition" CPU's, standard processors such as the Athlon II have CPU Multipliers (the multiplier that derives the overall core frequencies) that are only unlocked downwards but not upwards. The implication of this is that there is a larger dependence on the motherboard to reach a higher Hypertransport Base Frequency.
 
Our particular AMD Athlon II had a default core voltage of 1.3500V. AMD K10's are particularly fond of lower temperatures and thanks to a simpler core (relative to the Phenom II) low temperatures were indeed what we were gifted with.
 
 
With the default voltage of 1.3500V, our X2 250 processor sailed to 3.60GHz with a HTT Link Speed of 1920MHz (8x base) and a Northbridge Frequency of 2160MHz (9x base). With load temperatures hovering in the late 30's, we certainly weren't finished.
 
After a bit of tweaking and testing, we found the sweet spot of this processor at a rather frisky 3.90GHz with a HTT Link Speed of 1820MHz (7x base) and a Northbridge Frequency of 2600MHz (10x base), retaining the memory's clockspeed at around 1333MHz with 7-7-7-20 timings. This required 1.5250V for 24/7 stable operation and the load temperatures peaked at no higher than 47c with our modest Arctic Freezer 64 Pro Heatsink.
 
So how well will AMD's £55 wonder stack up against the mighty Core 2 Duo E8400? Let's find out.


AMD Athlon II X2 250 Processor Review Page: 2
Synthetic Benchmarks
 
And so we begin our series of tests with a number of popular synthetic benchmarks. These programs will test our systems featuring the processors in question in simulated environments to derive scores that give us an idea of the magnitude of a CPU's performance.
 
 
SANDRA's Arithmetic benchmark shows the Athlon II X2 250 being outpaced by 20% and 16% in Dhrystone and Whetstone tests respectively. Once overclocked, it's 900MHz clockspeed advantage allowed a 4% and 11% lead over a Core 2 Duo E8400 at it's reference clock speeds.

 
In the CPU Multimedia test, our Athlon II and Core 2 Duo were performing nigh on par with each other. This test does not particularly benefit from large amounts of cache.
 
 
This test is more of a cross platform comparison rather than a processor comparison, seeing that the memory controller on our LGA775 test setup is part of the Intel X48 Northbridge, while the memory controller on our Socket AM3 platform is integrated into the Athlon II itself. No surprises here.
 
 
Again, this is more of a platform test and in this case we're comparing the MA770T UD3P's SB710 Southbridge with the Foxconn BlackOps' ICH10R Southbridge. Neither seem to be outperforming as such with our Samsung Spipoint F1 Hard Disk Drive.
 
 
 
Naturally this is more an all round system benchmark with a considerable dependance on the Graphics Card as well as the Processor. The score has been broken down into sections to get an idea of how the test setups performed. As you can see, neither processors are bottlenecking a midrange graphics card like the GeForce 8800GT and so either are more than respectable choices if gaming performance is crucial. Here, we see the E8400 taking a lead over the X2 250 by 15% in the CPU test.
 
 
Once again returning to the world of CPU intensive benchmarks, CinebenchR10 analyses the speed at which a processor renders a high resolution image and outputs a score accordingly. The test was carried out in singlethreaded and multithreaded mode. Once again, the E8400 slaps the X2 250 around the back of it's heatspreader with a 10% margin.
 
 
PCMark Vantage shows a lead of 4% over the X2 250. The little AMD is fighting hard! Turn over the page to have a look at the last set of synthetic benchmarks as well as gaming benchmarks.


AMD Athlon II X2 250 Processor Review Page: 3
Synthetic Benchmarks Cont'd...
 
 
Passmark is yet another all round system benchmark but includes a set of credible Processor tests. Our Core 2 Duo E8400 flew through this benchmark, with a 20% lead and even pipping the 3.90GHz Athlon II!
 
 
Another clear win for Intel pushing a 28% lead over the X2 250. Once again, even when overclocked it was unable to match the E8400.

 
Now this particular ageing application is a bit of an oddball in that it heavily prefers Intel's Core architectures. It goes without saying but we shall not be using this particular result to form our conclusions. Do however note the respectable scaling of the Athlon II with a 24% speedup from a 30% overclock.
 
 
Gaming Performance
 
 
Microsoft Flight Simulator X is a very CPU dependant game even in high resolutions and is therefore an ideal game for this test. Both processors held up high framearates however the E8400 still ran the show with an average framerate of just under 104fps, 27% higher than the Athlon II.
 
 
Racedriver GRID represented a 14% higher result for the E8400.
 
 
Interestingly, both processors were on par with each other in Call of Duty 4. The Athlon II X2 250's overclock did not offer any performance gains.


AMD Athlon II X2 250 Processor Review Page: 4
Conclusion
 
So surely enough, our Core 2 Duo E8400 3.00GHz processor outpaced the AMD Athlon II X2 250 across the board in a rather landslide victory. There is more to the results than it seems though. Baring in mind that the SuperPi 1M results are considered as a bit of an outline, once excluded the end result is that the Core 2 Duo E8400 was, 12% faster in synthetic benchmarks, 14% in our choice of games and hence was 13% faster overall. Do note that I've been careful to not consider the overclocked performance of our AMD Athlon II processor as we all know very well that it's unfair to compare an overclocked unit to another that's operating at it's reference clock speeds and what's more is that an E8400 can be overclocked as well and it can be safely said that 4.0GHz and over is usually the norm for the 45nm Wolfdale core anyway.
 
Now here comes value for money. With a £60 difference in price between the Athlon II X2 250 and Core 2 Duo E8400 processors, the Intel processor will offer you approximately 13% more performance on average depending on what applications you use. Does that sound right to you? It certainly doesn't to me and if you're someone who does not care much for overclocking then the extra amount of money spent on the E8400 goes completely unanswered for. To top it off, over the next year we will see the end of LGA775 processor production and LGA1156 will be taking over. Socket AM3 on the other hand is expected to see multiple processor releases and new motherboards right into 2011, although there is no confirmation as to the backwards compatibility of AMD's next architecture which is expected around then. To summarise this side of the argument, the Athlon II is no slouch, it's priced at less than half of the E8400 and is backed with a choice of solid platforms that offer at least some promise for future processor support. End of story? Well, not quite.
 
What if you are a keen overclocker? Is this still the budget processor for you? The answer to this question is not quite as clear as the previous scenario. Sure, we saw a very healthy 30% clock speed increase with our X2 250 which resulted in very good performance gains but it shouldn't be forgotten that overclocking non black edition processors involves a strong dependance on the quality of the motherboard. Thankfully our Gigabyte MA770T UD3P quite effortlessly made it to a Base HTT Frequency of 260MHz allowing for the overclock that we achieved but your mileage may vary. Then comes the matter of it's lack of Level 3 cache. As we don't have a Phenom II Processor to compare it with, it remains to be seen how much of a difference the lost cache makes but common sense would assume that it wouldn't be useless. Also it is worth mentioning that the Regor core unlike Callisto (Phenom II Dual) and Heka (Phenom II Tri) is a native dual core. The implication of this is that there are no "extra" cores that can be unlocked via SB710/SB750 Southbridge's Advanced Clock Calibration function. Really, the Athlon II doesn't offer anywhere near the level of customisation and tweaking ability that the Phenom II processors offer and for just an extra £18, a Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition is 100MHz faster, sports 6mb Level 3 cache, unlocked processor multipliers and has a reasonably high success rate of unlocking into a fully fledged Quad Core when paired with a motherboard with a SB710/SB750 Southbridge like the Gigabyte MA770T UD3P that we used. I don't mean to put a downer on this product as it truly does perform remarkably well straight out of the box but this is far from the best choice for the overclocker. It is indeed nearly £20 more affordable than the Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition but frankly, it's well worth chasing the ice cream van a little less frequently to save up!
 
So to wrap this review up, here's the final verdict. If you're building a bang per buck system that needs to perform well straight out of the box then this is a fantastic processor, performing within inches of the E8400 and the savings incurred all you to buy a motherboard to actually use it. If the idea is to save even more money, it could well be an option to opt for it's slower brother, the Athlon II X2 240 built upon the same foundations, 200MHz slower but £13 cheaper. If however overclocking is part of the plan, while this processor is no slow coach, there are better choices to be had including the more expensive Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition or if future upgradability is less of a concern, the Intel Pentium Dual Core E5200 and E6300.
 
All in all, an excellent replacement for the aging AMD Athlon 64 X2 range with an excellent price tag and performance to boot. Good work, AMD.
 
The Good
- The Price
- The Performance
- Low operating temperatures
- Respectable Overclocking Yield for it's processor type.
 
The Mediocre
- Not the best choice for the keen overclocker
- Lack of Level 3 Cache
 
The Bad
-
 
 
Thanks to AMD for sending the Athlon II X2 250 in for review. Discuss this review in our forums.