AMD vs Intel - The Gaming Sweetspot Page: 1
Introduction
 
 
I would say that most long time tech readers will remember that fateful summer day in 2006 when Intel finally brought an end to the period of hateful Intel Pentium 4 and Pentium D processors, unleashing their secret weapon that turned the tables of CPU warfare. Prior to this, AMD had a three year long performance and value for money crown while Intel continued to release multiple iterations of their Netburst based processors, hoping that they could fend off the smaller underdog with clock speed alone. No doubt that this worked just fine in terms of mass orders to OEMs, many DIY builders were left feeling unsatisfied to say the least. I am an optimist however and strongly believe that most bad patches don't last forever and in the context of a huge and profitable chip giant such as the likes of Intel, I'm surely right and on that note, it truly seemed as though AMD were practically caught napping amidst their acquisition of ATi.
 
Most should also remember that the 24 months that followed were just as dire as AMD/ATi began to pull together new products such as the AMD Phenom X3/X4 range and the ATi Radeon HD 2900 series that were simply too little and too late. Combined with falling confidence, the plummet of share prices and the impending economic downturn that was soon to follow, things just weren't looking great at all. However, at nearly 18 months since the release of the incredibly successful Radeon HD 4800 series and almost a year since the launch of the affordable Phenom II Processor lineup, the doomsday picture that I had just painted out seems as though it was nothing more than a distant memory. It is all but over however as there is no getting around the fact that Intel still possess the performance crown and with their quality assurance based “Tick-Tock” product development strategy, there isn't a lot that's stopping them from maintaining their position. For this reason, it's imperative that AMD do not rely on solely ramping up clock speeds and the sale of units at next to non existant profit margins, but aggressively develop new processor architectures in order to keep up. How much does this really affect the gamer though? Let's discuss.
 
The majority of todays games are inherently graphics card dependant. While I'm not trying to suggest that pairing a Celeron 430 1.80GHz processor with a top end graphics card will yield similar results to the same card paired with a Core i7 975 3.46GHz processor, but within reason most of the work that concerns the fluidity of the latest and greatest games will be mostly dependant on the graphics card. When you factor in the decreasing price of TFT Monitors and the increases in native resolution, graphical dependancies towards the end user has been further exacerbated. So what we're wondering is, how fast a processor must be implemented in a gaming rig in order to fuel a top of the line Radeon HD 5870 1GB GDDR5 graphics card? Would anyone notice if the same graphics card was paired with AMD's best despite it's shortcomings against the Intel Core i7? It's not an unknown fact that the Core i7 is faster in work per clock cycle and also benefits from Hyperthreading Technology whenever an application decides to harness it. In certain scenarios, it is arguably possible for a Core i7 920 to outpace an AMD Phenom II X4 even with as much as a 667MHz clockspeed deficit. Given the traits of most games these days, would the difference between the two be so prominent?
 
     
 
So what does it take to put together a fine gaming machine for today and the future without breaking the bank? Can the Human Resistance fend off the evils of Skynet and still have enough change left to stop by the local watering hole? Who dares, wins is all we have to say so please join us as we pitch AMD's finest against the mighty Core i7 platform in a classic head to head style gaming shoot out.
 
 
 


AMD vs Intel - The Gaming Sweetspot Page: 2
Core i7 Architecture
 
The Core i7 processor, launched around this time last year is an all new architecture that followed the highly successful Core 2 Quad lineup. Major changes included the integration of a memory controller onboard the processor and as a consequence, the death of the (arguably) limitation inducing "Front Side Bus" link. In addition, support for Triple Channel Memory was incorporated and the Intel Core 2's huge pool of Level 2 cache has been replaced by small dedicated sets of 256kB per core and a shared bank of 8mb Level 3 cache. Last but not least, the Core i7 saw the return of Hyperthreading Technology, which by specification is meant to aid the processing of multithreaded computations, by treating a given core as two.
 
 
 
 The end result is a platform that is completely reworked when compared to the LGA775/Core 2 Duo/Quad. Technically speaking, we're looking at a much more efficient architecture but of course, this all comes at a price and what's more is that as elaborate an architecture might be, it still commands the right software to harness it's true capabilties.
 
Phenom II Architecture
 
 Upon face value, AMD's Phenom II architecture doesn't appear all too different. The "Deneb" core, used in the entireity of the Phenom II lineup sports 512kB of Level 2 cache per core and a shared pool of 6MB Level 3 cache. AMD does not have a Hyperthreading equivalent and while it has an integrated memory controller and a fast data link, memory will only function in Dual Channel mode and thus reducing the maximum achievable memory bandwith on the Socket AM3 platform. 
 
 
It's not a particularly new architecture either as the Deneb core is more of a healthy progression of it's roots which stem as far back as the once revolutionary AMD Athlon 64 "K8" core. Core tweaks, an even faster Hypertransport Link speed and a large helping of Level 3 cache has proved to be more than enough to keep these processors up to speed. Another factor to consider is that along with the Deneb core's smaller "die" size and it's supposedly high yields, production costs are lower and this directly translates to lower purchase prices for the end user.
 
When it comes to mating your prospective new processor with the right motherboard and RAM, AMD does win from a price perspective, with very capable single graphics card boards such as the Gigabyte MA770T UD3P for under £70 and CrossfireX capable boards from £85. Memory pricing is also very respectable thanks to the requirement for Dual Channel memory over Triple Channel. With this in mind, does the phrase, "You get what you pay for" hold true in the context of this article? Let's see for ourselves.
 


AMD vs Intel - The Gaming Sweetspot Page: 3
Testbed
 
In order to maintain a level playing ground, comparable hardware was used across both testbeds and thus minimising the likelihood of a bias.
 
Intel

Intel Core i7 920 Processor @ 2.66GHz
Gigabyte EX58 UD3R LGA1366 Motherboard
6GB PC3-12800 DDR3-1600 Memory
HIS Radeon HD 5870 1GB GDDR5 Graphics Card
500GB Seagate 7200.12 SATA II Hard Disk Drive
Corsair TX 650W Power Supply Unit
Akasa Nero Heatpipe Cooler
Windows Vista Home Premium
LG 22x DVD+/-RW SATA

AMD

AMD Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition @ 3.40GHz
Gigabyte MA770T UD3P Socket AM3 Motherboard
4GB PC3-12800 DDR3-1600 Memory
HIS Radeon HD 5870 1GB GDDR5 Graphics Card
320GB Samsung Spinpoint F1 SATA II Hard Disk Drive
Corsair TX 650W Power Supply Unit
Arctic Cooling Freezer 64 Pro Cooler
Windows Vista Home Premium
LG 22x DVD+/-RW SATA

Crysis Warhead
 
Crysis Warhead is without a doubt one hard nut to crack, especially at higher resolutions and a dash of Anti Aliasing and Anisotrophic Filtering. The perfect play ground for the superb Radeon HD 5870 graphics card.
 
 
The nature of the game combined with the relatively high resolution has resulted in near identical frame rates. In this particular case, our more affordable AMD Phenom II based test rig is holding it's own very well. The frame rates as such are not particularly bad but on both test setups, there were areas of dense graphics such as explosions where the game play was a tad choppy. All in all however, both systems seem to take on Crysis Warhead admirably well.
 
Far Cry 2
 
Far Cry 2, another popular game that is well known for it's excellent visuals but also known for it's lack of mercy for lower end machines, most notably so at higher resolutions. Furthermore this particular game features a rather comprehensive benchmark tool that simulates game play realistically and most importantly very accurately.
 
 
In this particular game, the Core i7 920 develops an ever so slight lead over the Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition, but it should be made quite clear that without looking at the figures, there's no way you could tell between the two.
 
Microsoft Flight Simulator X
 
Flight Simulator X, launched in 2006 is Microsoft's latest and possibly their last iteration of the once popular aviation based series. Sadly, this particular game is known to most for it's faults and when I mean faults, I truly mean it. The game itself is based on a very old engine that dates as far back as FS2002 but has been tweaked for all the additional visuals and functions. Now that the game has been patched to take advantage of Multicore processors, performance issues have been ironed out to some extent.
 
 
Here, the Core i7 see's a more substantial lead over the 965BE in terms of maximum frame rates however based on average, they remain much the same.
 
Call of Duty 4
 
Call of Duty 4 is another popular hit however even with all of the eye candy set to full and the image quality raised up high, it doesn't particularly hurt today's latest and greatest. Regardless, let's see how it fares.
 
 
 The Core i7 920's lead is most prominent in this particular test, with a large increase in minimum frame rates. On average however, they are not so different. It should be noted that much like Far Cry 2, it would be hard to distinguish between the Intel and AMD system even if they were placed side by side.
 


AMD vs Intel - The Gaming Sweetspot Page: 4
Conclusion
 
As the day draws to a close, the never ending battle of the processing titans take a short break for us to have a little chat. It seems to be quite clear that as an architecture, Intel have really hit the nail on the head as despite a near 700MHz frequency deficit, it matches and occasionally outpaces it's AMD based competition. By the looks of it, Intel are on the right tracks thanks to their aggressive "tick-tock" product update strategy whereby in a two to three year period we see a new architecture and a midlife update. The next update will entail a die shrink to 32nm and the addition of hex-core CPU's for the LGA1366 platform, surely enough to keep AMD on their toes.
 
For our smaller underdog however, our final result seems to be that their flagship Phenom II X4 965 processor can just about keep up with Intel's high end line up. With only minor frequency increments, the release of hex-core CPU's at least half a year away and no new architecture any time soon, the prognosis doesn't sound too good. But is AMD's weakened presence in the ultra high end such a bad thing? Actually if you think about it, the wide majority of processors in the world that go into prebuilt machines have retail prices of under £150. So long as AMD are making money out of their processors, then surely it's not such a bad thing from a business point of view. It does remain to be a problem for the computing enthusiasts as if you want anything faster than a Phenom II X4 965, you have no choice but to buy a Core i7 940 and higher. It's not so great for the overclockers either as from our previous testing, ramping a current production Phenom II towards the region of 4.00GHz can be very tedious and often not possible. Realistically, one can expect around 3.6-3.90GHz with a Phenom II X4 and this is not likely to change drastically until we see a dieshrink or a reworked memory controller that isn't so problematic with upper end overclocks on a 64bit operating system. An Intel Core i7 machine however is not so likely to be as fussy when overclocking towards 4.00GHz and beyond, so long as you've treated it with a substantial CPU heatsink.
 
Out of the box performance seems to be a different kettle of fish. For a moment, just forget about processor overclocking as we're talking about performance without any further tweaking on a blank operating system install. From our testing, we find the AMD Phenom II X4 965 to perform within 10% of the Core i7 965 (often less) and at a lower price. For emphasis, please examine the graph below, outlining
 
 
Our particular choice of components includes the Core i7 920, Gigabyte EX58 UD3R and 6GB Corsair PC3-12800 DDR3 RAM. From AMD, we picked the AMD Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition, Gigabyte 790XTD Evo Motherboard (for CrossfireX support) and either 4GB or 8GB Corsair PC3-12800 DDR3 RAM. Upon examining these figures, it became apparent that the Intel configuration was 43.6% more expensive than the 4GB configuration and 16.5% quicker than the 8GB configuration. So let's talk value for money. Is opting for a Intel Core i7 920 based system  the way to go? Yes and no. Alright, so is opting for the AMD Phenom II X4 965 based system the way to go? Erm, yes and no...
 
Quite annoyingly, there is no straight forward answer to this as ultimately it comes down to personal needs. If you're an overclocker, then perhaps you might appreciate what the additional outlay gives you, more so if you do a lot of media/encoding based work as this is where Core i7 shines. You're also set if you're after a hexa core processor next year. What if you don't have any interest in overclocking though? AMD Phenom II it is then, thanks to it's excellent pricing, gaming performance that is very much on Core i7 levels and also the scope to upgrade to hexa core CPU's when they eventually turn up. 
 
Returning to our initial analogy, referring the violent clashes of two opposites featuring Cyborgs that want to anihilate all humans and the Resistance who are fighting back to prevent their demise. Based on our conclusion, it would appear as though we reached a slight anticlimax where just when both sides were face to face ready to fire at will, they stopped, agreed that they both have their own merits, called a truce and walked into the sunset hand in hand. At any rate, I do apologise for the tame outcome but this is it I guess. Thankfully in a business context, there will never be a ceasefire between these two titans and so the consumer can always count on continuous product development and competitive pricing.
 
AMD has surely enough got it right from a value for money point of view but would it suit you? Feel free to dicuss which platform suits you best on our forums