Phenom II: Unlocking Cores, Cache, And A Free Lunch

Conclusion

Our results here aren’t exactly conclusive—and they probably won’t ever be. AMD might be playing pleased about enthusiasts toying with disabled components, but most of its motherboard partners are being made to quietly plug that little…we’ll call it a little “slip.” Not that we blame AMD. Turning an X3 720 into an X4 920-equivalent costs the company $55. Unlocking 2MB of cache might keep an enthusiast from buying a Phenom II X4 920, costing AMD another $20 per CPU versus the price of an X4 810.

Of course, the more benign explanation would be that AMD is saving enthusiasts from instability when they coax a core or block of cache to life, and then it turns out to be flaky in day-to-day usage. Whatever the reason, though, platforms employing the old microcode are drying up as vendors update their BIOSes to include the latest fixes.

By and large, this seems much ado about nothing, though. Even among the vendors who’ve tested dozens of processors, there doesn’t seem to be a surefire way of sorting unlockable chips from those that aren’t. We were all over the place with steppings and production dates, as have the board makers to whom we’ve been talking.

Having spent money on retail CPUs and feeling the joy of getting that extra 2MB of L3, then the disappointment of not getting a fourth core, I feel fairly qualified in offering the following advice. If you already own a Phenom II X3 700- or Phenom II X4 800-series CPU, it’s certainly worth a shot to try unlocking them with a board that still supports this functionality (at the time of writing, ASRock’s M3A790GXH/128 still does). After all, you have nothing to lose by trying. Worst case scenario, you experience stability issues, turn ACC off, and continue on your way. But don’t go buying a Phenom II X3 720 because you read on a forum somewhere that someone else with a chip from the same production week got one and it worked. There’s a chance you’ll get a Phenom II X4 920 out of it. It’s more likely that you’ll get what you paid for, though—a Phenom II X3 720.  

Boards like ASRock’s are going to get increasingly difficult to find as vendors update their BIOSes to patch in the latest SB750 microcode. If you’re in the market for a new Socket AM3 Phenom II platform, then the 790GX-based M3A790GXH/128 is a good place to start—it held up well through hours of CPU and cache stress testing in Prime95 and Everest. There aren’t any 900-series X4s yet (though they’re on the way), so if you’re able to turn an X3 720 or X4 810 into an equivalent 900-series AM3-based processor without stability issues, more power to you. Just don’t expect it. And don’t be surprised if a future BIOS update reverses your unlock.

Given that all of the available Phenom IIs are separated by no more than $100, however, it makes the most sense to simply buy the processor you need. Perhaps it’d be a different story if we were turning a $200 Athlon into a $999 Athlon 64 FX of old. But for $30 or $40 bucks, I’d rather maintain my warranty coverage if I were planning to run at stock settings. And if you’re planning to overclock anyway, you’re likely better off getting an extra 100 or 200 MHz out of your triple-core chip, rather than unlocking a fourth core and hampering that overclock with a less-savory piece of silicon turned on.

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    Top Comments
  • cangelini
    Well, but the point isn't the benchmarks. We already know that most games are going to be limited more by graphics horsepower versus whether a CPU has three or four cores/4MB shared L3 or 6MB shared L3.

    In fact, when it comes to gaming, you're going to be better off looking for the fastest overclock possible with your three good cores or 4MB of known-good cache, really.
    13
  • Other Comments
  • dirtmountain
    Good article. Now if you can just get your ad clowns from sticking us with those annoying ads.....!
    7
  • Anonymous
    test them with games... some people care about that :P
    2
  • cangelini
    Well, but the point isn't the benchmarks. We already know that most games are going to be limited more by graphics horsepower versus whether a CPU has three or four cores/4MB shared L3 or 6MB shared L3.

    In fact, when it comes to gaming, you're going to be better off looking for the fastest overclock possible with your three good cores or 4MB of known-good cache, really.
    13
  • Anonymous
    omg you replied to me... i'm so honoured :P

    but yes, i agree... but if you had crossfire gpus, this would make a difference. but then again, i think you'd have the money to buy the real thing (phenom II 920)
    1
  • tacoslave
    i like this article toms should do more stuff like this.
    5
  • apache_lives
    Page 3 "it ran for an hour sans error before we shut it down" - mistake?

    Me wonders if extra v's would help both to the memory, HTT and cores etc, or underclock that extra core if possible....

    On the other hand as all overclockers/modders should be aware THERE'S NO GUARANTEE on what you can get out of your hardware etc.

    Out of interest, is the third core ("Core 2"... LOL) still always the culprit of every X3 (unlockable or not)?

    Now if only there was some super secret on modding my Q6600 into a i7 940.....
    -11
  • cangelini
    Hey Apache! No error, sans = without.
    2
  • apache_lives
    still reads wrong to me?
    -10
  • Summer Leigh Castle
    Good article but can someone explain how ACC % works? Also, where do we start in terms of ACC % if we're tweaking for stability?
    2
  • ravenware
    cangeliniHey Apache! No error, sans = without.


    The only reason I know that is because of Wayne's World2.
    -1
  • cangelini
    I do wish I could give you more detail on ACC, but AMD has played that card close to its chest. In terms of where to start, I'd say "Auto" is your best bet, and then move up and down in 2% increments in each direction.
    0
  • raden_muaz
    can you compare it with PII 910? PII 810 have higher clock speed.
    0
  • Slobogob
    Great article. Reminds me of how Tomshardware used to be.
    9
  • empstar
    this reminds me of the 1st Athlon with gold finger and the athlon with the "tape" on top to link connection for Socket A. 1998 I start reading this web..... :-) where is Dr. Toms P go ? I wonder..
    3
  • apache_lives
    tom sold it ;)
    0
  • empstar
    sold it to Bestofmedia? omg since when?
    0
  • Pei-chen
    AMD is not overclocker friendly by locking the multiplier, cores and cache. What happened to the AMD in Athlon and Athlon XP era?
    0
  • apache_lives
    Pei-chenAMD is not overclocker friendly by locking the multiplier, cores and cache. What happened to the AMD in Athlon and Athlon XP era?


    its called sales - if your $100 processor was the same as your $500 processor why would you buy the $500 processor?
    2
  • neiroatopelcc
    I supposed it wouldn't be impossible to custom tailor a bios for a non asrock board. I haven't dared try (nor needed to), but I expect it to be quite likely you could just extract the microcode from an older, working, asrock bios, and replace the code in your gigabyte, asus or whatever bios with it. All I think that is required, apart from knowledge on bios tinkering I don't have, is a 750 chip on the board.
    1
  • apache_lives
    i believe it depends partly on the IO chip too (usually one of those ITE 87xx chips), then flash part type, rom size, bios brand (award, AMI etc) - beyond most of us and more for the motherboard engineers etc.
    -1