At the Core: Processors
Intel Core i7 965 Extreme - $1,030
At the ultra high end of the spectrum, there is Intel’s newCore i7 965 Extreme. Intel raised the desktop CPU performance bar with the Core i7 family of processors, so what’s not to like? (Except, of course, the price.) In our tests, the Core i7 Extreme 965 / X58 chipset combo put up the best performance we have seen from a desktop PC platform to date.
As you’ll recall, Intel moved the memory controller on-die, paving the way for the new QPI (Quick Path Interconnect), which is a new serial interconnect that resides between the CPU and chipset. As a result, there’s no more traditional front side bus. QPI offers up to 25.6GB/s of bandwidth per port over 40 data lanes, 20 in each direction, and architectural updates within the CPU core improves performance over the previous generation Core 2 family of processors.
Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300 - $249 In comparison to its big brother, the Core i7 965 Extreme, the Core i7 920 seems somewhat affordable. With this processor, you’ll still get the benefits of the new Core i7 architecture and X58 chipset, but at an almost mid-range price. The Core i7 920 includes four processors cores on a single die; each running at a default 2.66GHz. This processor also has 8MB of shared cache. Finally, the Core i7 line has an integrated memory controller that supports Triple Channel DDR3 Memory and faster access times.
Intel Core i7 920 - $294
In comparison to its big brother, the Core i7 965 Extreme, the Core i7 920 seems somewhat affordable. With this processor, you’ll still get the benefits of the new Core i7 architecture and X58 chipset, but at an almost mid-range price. The Core i7 920 includes four processors cores on a single die; each running at a default 2.66GHz. This processor also has 8MB of shared cache. Finally, the Core i7 line has an integrated memory controller that supports Triple Channel DDR3 Memory and faster access times.
Intel's migration to 45nm technology has been kind to their legacy generation of Core 2 architecture-based processors. The Core 2 Quad Q9300 is a 2.5GHz incarnation of Intel's 45nm Penryn Core 2 quad-core product offering and it has cool, more modest TDP (thermal design power) of 95W. What this means is you'll get solid performance at stock speed and if you're the overclocking type, there's plenty of headroom in there as well. This chip runs on a 1333MHz FSB and is a pretty strong value, weighing at $239 - $249 depending on where you're shopping.
* Editor's note: page updated to include Intel's Core 2 Quad offering - 12/12/08
Targeted at enthusiasts and overclockers, the AMD Phenom X4 9950 Black Edition has a max TDP of 140 watts and clocks in at a respectable 2.6GHz. Want to push it further? The Black Edition has an unlocked multiplier which allows you to reach even faster speeds through overclocking. In our tests earlier this year, we were able to take the Phenom X4 9950 to 3.1GHz using nothing but a stock AMD PIB cooler by altering the multiplier and increasing the CPU voltage. Even with the overclock, the chip never broke the 60ºC mark.
Based on the Agena core with socket AM2+ packaging, the Phenom X4 9950 incorporates a unified high-speed L3 cache and high-speed DDR2 memory. The Phenom X4 9950 utilizes the socket AM2+, an improved socket design based on the original socket AM2.
After an early release of Phenom processors that contained a bug that could cause a system hang in certain, very specific circumstances, AMD finally got it right with its latest Phenom lineup. The Phenom X4 9850 Black Edition comes with a 2.5GHz core clock and a 4GHz HT link. Perhaps equally important, the Phenom X4 9850 Black Edition and other xx50 model number Phenoms have B3 silicon and a hardware fix for the TLB erratum.
Like other AMD Black Edition processors, the 9850 has an unlocked clock multiplier that makes overclocking extremely easy. Pair a the Phenom X4 9850 Black Edition with a new motherboard featuring the SB750 southbridge with ACC and AMD's Overdrive utility for some low-budget overclocking action.
Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 - $188
On the Intel budget side, we find the Core 2 Duo E8500. Based on Intel’s 45nm Wolfdale design, the Core 2 Duo E8500 processor brings some noteworthy benefits in comparison to the previous generation 65nm Conroe. First, the family offers faster clock speeds; the Core 2 Duo E8500 runs at 3.16GHz with a 1333MHz front side bus. In addition, the Wolfdale design improves power consumption, with TDP levels of 65W when running at 3.16GHz.
The Core 2 Duo E8500 is also smaller than previous chips, at 107mm2. This should allow Intel to make more of these chips per wafer, thereby driving costs down. You’ll also get more L2 cache on the processor die—up to 6MB per chip, compared to 4MB with previous generation dual-cores. The Core 2 Duo E8500 uses the Socket-775 form factor.
AMD Phenom X4 9650 - $145
AMD’s budget quad-core CPU this year is the Phenom X4 9650. Like the Phenom X4 9850 Black Edition, the Phenom X4 9650 is bug-free from the TLB erratum problems that plagued early chips. The 9650 is clocked at 2.3GHz and has a TDP of 95W.
The X4 9650 has a built-in memory controller that controls the speed at which data moves between the processor and the system memory. It also utilizes the HyperTransport 3.0 standard, which links the processor to other components in your system. Compared to earlier Phenom chips, the Phenom X4 9650 received a boost to 2.0GHz on the memory controller and 4.0GHz on HyperTransport.