Saturday, June 15, 2024

PC Hardware Trends: AMD’s Most Affordable R700s

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After Nvidia introduced its entry-level GeForce 9 Series graphics-processing-unit (GPU) lineup, we expected a response from AMD, and that company wasted no time in giving us one.

After all, AMD’s ATI division has been on a serious roll lately, and its high-end Radeon HD 4800 line has been taking Nvidia to town. The Radeon HD 4870 X2 is the fastest single-card solution on the market, and the Radeon HD 4850 and 4870 are the price/performance leaders of their class. Now AMD is moving to seize the low-end segment by launching the Radeon HD 4600 series.

While Nvidia seems content to introduce redesigned GeForce 8 Series cards as re-branded GeForce 9 models, AMD has built every member of its Radeon HD 4000 series on the new R700 core architecture. This has brought impressive performance gains in each market segment — the single-GPU Radeon HD 4870 challenges the previous-generation, dual-GPU HD 3870 X2 — along with a consistent feature set.

Extending this to the entry level are the new Radeon HD 4650 and 4670, which offer the new architecture for about $69 and $79, respectively. Their specifications are a little strange at first glance: The new cards’ 320 stream processors are the same as the Radeon HD 3870’s, while their 32 texture units are double that card’s count.

Clock speeds are also high, with the HD 4650 set at 600MHz and the HD 4670 at 750MHz. On paper, the Radeon HD 4650 and 4670 look like enhanced versions of the HD 3850 and 3870, the last of which was AMD’s last-generation mainstream performance model.

Of course, you won’t really be buying a Radeon HD 3870 equivalent for $79; AMD has ensured some separation by implementing that old favorite of the economy segment, a 128-bit memory interface instead of the 256- or 512-bit memory link of a mainstream or high-end card. The restriction cuts the same-clock memory bandwidth of a Radeon HD 4650/4670 to half that of an HD 3850 or 3870. The Radeon HD 4850 carries a modest 512MB of DDR2 at 1GHz as well, though the HD 4670 is available with 512MB or 1GB of GDDR3 clocked at up to 2GHz.

The new Radeons are also low-power units, checking in at 48 watts for the HD 4650 and 59 watts for the HD 4670, with no external power connectors required for either card. This will allow their use with entry-level and small-form-factor systems, lowering both power usage and heat production compared to a comparable previous-generation graphics card. Performance per watt is also something AMD is heavily promoting, which is a smart move given the current logjam in the sub-$100 graphics segment.

Mainstream Performance at an Entry-Level Price

Moving from one bottom line (price) to the other (performance), the ATI Radeon HD 4650 and 4670 are stunning achievements. Even with the smaller 128-bit memory interface, the $69 and $79 cards compete well against last-generation mainstream performance cards. The lower memory bandwidth does hamper the cards a bit at higher resolutions, but the GPU makes up for it. Frankly, this level of performance is unheard-of in a card with an under-$80 price tag.

As mentioned, the Radeon HD 4670 easily outperforms the HD 3850 and comes very close to matching the HD 3870, a model that was AMD’s single-GPU flagship not long ago. The new cards also handle antialiasing and anisotropic filtering duties with ease, as the R700 core has been enhanced for these features. The 4650/4670 also use less power than the 3850/3870 cards, and manage to put the lockdown on the Nvidia entry-level competition as well.

CrossFire For the Win

Multi-GPU technology is another area in which AMD has taken a leadership role, and the company’s current CrossFireX implementation is supported throughout the new 4600 series. This is not only important from a scalability point of view, but also helps AMD’s marketing effort by promising a quick-fix graphics upgrade if required: The overall cost benefit is intriguing, as you can spend $79 now and then double up for another $79 (or less) later on.

And, thanks to Intel adopting the CrossFire architecture, odds are better that you own a supported motherboard. By cultivating an uneasy relationship with Intel, and incorporating CrossFire from top to bottom — even in the 780G and 790GX integrated-graphics chipsets– AMD has made CrossFire almost a household name. Except for those using Nvidia’s own nForce chipsets, virtually all high-end desktop motherboards support AMD’s multi-GPU technology, and many mainstream platforms do as well. Intel is a powerhouse in the performance desktop market, and AMD is happy to come along for the ride.

By contrast, Nvidia views its SLI technology as a major selling point of its nForce motherboard chipsets and, aside from the Intel Skulltrail bridge-chip experiment, has been loath to allow it outside these confines. That works fine for the company’s platform department, but maintaining a proprietary hold on SLI has definitely hurt Nvidia’s graphics-card sales. It’s sort of a Catch-22: Nvidia would gain more of the graphics pie if SLI was opened up to Intel platforms, but then the nForce line would be extremely vulnerable.

The release of the Radeon HD 4600 is an impressive one, but with only one problem — the previous-generation ATI and Nvidia performance cards are no longer priced at $150 to $200. As faster GPU architectures emerge and new card lines are added, last year’s models trickle down the price list, usually settling in the sub-$100 range. Radeon HD 3850 512MB cards can now be found for around $90, while the more powerful HD 3870 512MB costs not much more than $100.

It’s the same story with the GeForce family, as last-generation powerhouses like the GeForce 8800 GT and 9600 GT 512MB boards hover right around the $100 mark, while lower-clocked GS and GSO variants set up shop in the $80-to-$90 range. This creates additional competition, even at $69 to $79.

Even so, the new AMD Radeon HD 4650 and 4670 cards should do well simply based on their combination of mainstream performance and low power usage. One thing is for sure — buyers can get a lot more for a C-note than ever before.

Intel CPU Prices

Even after continued price cuts to the AMD Phenom X3 and X4 lines, Intel has held back from lowering prices on any of its Core 2 Duo, Quad, or Extreme processors. Sure, there have been a few small price drops here and there, but the majority of these are minuscule, such as $10 to $20 off a $1,400-plus part like the 3.2GHz Core 2 Extreme QX9770. This means virtually nothing in the grand scheme of things, and there has been no significant change in the overall Core 2 price list.

That also means we’re looking at a quick repeat of our Intel best-buy list, where the 3.16GHz Core 2 Duo E8500 continues to reign supreme with its amazing $190 price tag. The Core 2 Duo E8400 is another good value, clocked just a bit lower at 3.0GHz, while quad-core shoppers should check out the 2.5GHz Core 2 Quad Q9300 and 2.83GHz model Q9550, priced at $255 and $325, respectively.

Since Intel’s Core 2 CPUs have shown such stable pricing, it’s no surprise to see the same from the Celeron lineup. The price of both the 1.6GHz Celeron E1200 and 2.0GHz model E1400 remained at their usual levels, checking in at around $50 and $65, respectively. At these prices, go for the gusto and snag a full 2.0GHz Celeron E1400. The competitive problem Intel has is in the $65-to-$100 range, where AMD processors like the 2.7GHz Athlon 64 X2 5200+ ($66) and 3.0GHz Athlon 64 X2 6000+ ($92) offer a lot of bang for the buck.

Intel Upgrades

In this section, we evaluate potential upgrades for Core 2-compliant systems, using platforms that fully support Intel multicore processors. Whether it’s upgrading an existing system or buying a new one, the wildly popular Core 2 Duo E8500 offers 3.16GHz at under $190. This is a no-brainer choice, but it also means your platform needs to support both the 45-nanometer-process Wolfdale architecture and Intel’s 1333MHz front-side bus. If Wolfdale is getting you down, the $170 Core 2 Duo E6850 (3.0GHz) with FSB1333 is a potential option, but the safest route is to just snag a first-generation 65-nanometer, 1066MHz-bus Core 2 processor, like the venerable 2.4GHz Core 2 Quad Q6600 for under $200.

Before making any CPU upgrade, first confirm the front-side bus speeds your current Intel platform supports, along with ensuring proper BIOS, memory, and cooling requirements. Most older platforms are dependent on motherboard BIOS support, so check your vendor’s Web site to confirm exactly which processors your board can support. Unless you have a relatively new motherboard with confirmed CPU support, it’s usually best to avoid the latest 45nm and 1333/1600MHz-bus Core 2 processors.

AMD CPU Prices

Our previous update found the AMD camp entrenched in a stable pricing pattern, after months of random price cuts had pushed the majority of Phenom processors below $200. Well, the past few weeks have seen the holdouts join in: Now the highest-priced Phenom is the flagship X4 9950 Black Edition at only $180, which represents almost a 25-percent price drop.

The Phenom X4 9550 is now below $140, while the Phenom X3 8450 is hovering right around the $100 mark. Even the low-power Phenom X4 9150e got into the act, shaving almost 20 percent off its price. In terms of value, we still like the 2.4GHz Phenom X4 9750 and 2.5GHz X4 9850, as these supply high-end performance at a lower TDP than the flagship 2.6GHz X4 9950 Black Edition.

Although AMD sometimes forgets to invite the Athlon 64 X2 line to its price-cutting parties, it was there this time. Several of AMD’s dual-core processors received healthy price cuts, including the Athlon 64 X2 5400+, 5600+, and 6000+. The overall price/performance ratio continues to get better — with the steadily falling prices of its Phenom X3 parts, AMD had little choice but to drive all but the top-end Athlon 64 X2 6400+ to under $100. We really like the 3.0GHz Athlon 64 X2 6000+ at its new price of $92, which represents almost a 20-percent cut.

AMD Upgrades

Now that Socket AM2+ is the standard platform for new AMD systems, existing Socket AM2 systems represent the primary upgrade territory. Owners of AM2 systems have a wide range of upgrade choices, including not only the Athlon 64 X2 line but the backward-compatible Phenom X3 and X4. For existing systems, we really like the low-power Phenom 9150e (1.8GHz) and 9350e (2.0GHz), which both feature an incredible 65-watt TDP. The 2.4GHz Phenom X3 8750 triple-core and 2.5GHz X4 9850 quad-core are higher-performance options, but with TDP ratings on par with mainstream and high-end Athlon 64 X2 models.

The choice of Socket AM2 upgrade CPUs is still dependent on motherboard support, so be sure to check platform, BIOS, memory, and CPU specifications before making the buy. Newer processors may require a BIOS update at the very least, so confirm support before making your purchase. Due to the higher TDP of most Phenom X3 and X4 processors, please check your cooling solution and upgrade if necessary. A configuration page on AMD’s Web site confirms motherboard support for a given CPU.

Memory Trends

The overall price of DDR memory followed familiar trends, showing very slight downward movement in both the single-module and matched-pair sections — a nice change from the past few weeks’ “one step forward, one step back” action, in which any noticeable price drops were answered by equivalent price increases. If you look close enough, there are some potential DDR deals available.

Once again, DDR2 price changes differed greatly depending on whether you looked at single modules or dual-channel kits. The former were as stable as usual, while the latter continued to show noticeable price drops in a few areas. The most active was the DDR2/1066 to /1200 range, with 2x1GB and 2x2GB kits showing the biggest savings. The DDR2/800 2x2GB kits that were so active last time out were quiet this week.

The DDR3 memory market continues to be an intriguing one, especially as we’ve moved beyond the “all price drops, all the time” trends of early 2008. Today, any price cuts occur more sporadically and simply do not cut as deep. Most of the fat is gone at the entry-level and mid-range, so we’re finding most of the savings in the deluxe DDR3/1800 and /2000 segment, where high prices are still the norm.

This article was first published on Hardware Central.

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