Have Quad-core Processors Arrived In The Mainstream?

Pricewatch - If you go out and purchase an average desktop PC today, you will end up with a dual-core system in most cases. But there have been quad-core computers on retail shelves for some time now and we have been seeing these PCs being offered for close to $800, which is generally considered the barrier between mainstream and so-called premium PCs. More such PCs are one the way - but what if you want to upgrade your dual-core system with a quad-core CPU? How expensive are these CPUs and are they actually getting cheaper? TG Daily took a closer look to find out.

By now have heard the story that it isn't the clock speed that will get you the best performance from a processor. We are told it is the number of cores we should pay attention to. The more cores, the better - that is the simple message these days. Dual-cores have become the standard, the engine for your everyday office tasks. Sure there are several enthusiast dual-core processors that can cost you more than $1000 per piece, but four cores are certainly much more attractive for your entertainment or gaming PC.

To find out how affordable these processors are, we analyzed price data provided by Pricegrabber.com. We compiled maximum, minimum and average retail prices since the beginning of the second half of 2007 with the goal to get a better understanding where quad-core prices are headed.

Retailers listed by Pricegrabber.com currently sell nine different quad-core processors into the consumer market - seven of which are Intel processors.

AMD's Phenom processors entered the U.S. retail market in mid-November of last year: The 2.2 GHz Phenom 9500 made its retail debut at $291 and the 2.3 GHz Phenom 9600 at $322, surrounding Intel's Core 2 Quad, which was selling for $293 at the time.

Intel's current retail offering are the still very popular Core 2 Quad Q6600, the Q6700, the new 45 nm version Q9300 as well as the enthusiast models QX6850, QX9650 and QX9775 (we only considered processors that were offered by at least ten different retailers). Pricegrabber.com also lists a rather unexpected Intel model, which we decided to include in this article, due to its popularity: The Xeon X3210.

Mainstream market

There are two very distinct trends in this market:

Both the Core 2 Quad Q6600 and Q6700 have stabilized and are currently selling for significantly more dollars than Intel's tray price of $266 and $530, respectively. According to Pricegrabber.com, the two chips have average retail prices of $295 and $589 as of March 15. These price levels were reached by both processors early in the second half of last year and average prices remained stable pretty much since then. While bargain hunters typically look for a good deal on the Q6600 (which has sold for as low as $231 and as much as $1205 during the observed timeframe), the true bargain for people with an interest in a quad-core processor in fact may be the 2.13 GHz Xeon 3210 (8 MB L2 cache, FSB1066), which has a current average retail price of $240 (close to its lowest price level of $230 since July 1, 2007) - slightly above the tray price of $224.

But then, of course, if price is the focus in a quad-core processor purchase, AMD's Phenom processors are the way to go. The Phenoms are the cheapest quad-cores on the market right now and are selling for average prices of $216 (9500) and $225 (9600). There seems to be sufficient supply of these processors in the retail market and AMD certainly isn't doing much to keep their prices up. The 9500 is just a few dollars above its tray price of $209, while the average retail price of the 9600 is already below the tray price ($251). Patient buyers may get these processors for even less money: Pricegrabber.com has recorded 9500 prices as low as $110. The 9600 saw its record low at $220.

Of course, this scenario is reminiscent of the price war in 2006 and at least so far, the Phenom processor has not brought back AMD into the $300+ segment, which the company so desperately would need to boost its margins. Intel has little reason to drop its prices right now. So don't expect the Q6600 to come further down until the 9300 is shipping is shipping in substantially higher volumes, which should be the case later in Q2 or Q3.

Enthusiast market

Intel's Extreme processors are traditionally very expensive CPUs that rarely sell for less than $1000. The company has been running a lonely race in this segment, as AMD appears to be light years away from being capable of launching a serious challenger. Three $1000 Extreme quad-cores are currently sold by Intel, two of which are included in this overview. If we believe Pricegrabber.com, the QX6800 is in low supply: Only a handful stores covered by the price comparison service are selling the CPU right now, which automatically disqualified the processor from being included in this article.

$1000 for the 45 nm QX9650 or the 65 nm QX6850 is more or less wishful thinking, but there are good deals here and there: Realistically, you will have to spend a lot more to get one of these CPUs. Average prices are currently at $1086 and $1063, respectively. The QX6850 has sold for as much as $1549 and for as little as $894 over the past nine months. The QX9650 reached a high of $1470 and a low of $1038.

The QX9775 has not been officially included in Intel's processor price list, simply because there are only limited quantities. Unofficially, the CPU has a tray price of $1499 - no other desktop processor has ever been priced that high. The average retail price of the QX9775 is currently at $1627, while the highest price was recorded at $2025 and the lowest price at $1587.

To decide whether quad-core processors have arrived in the mainstream or not depends on your viewpoint. If you want one of Intel's processors, then you won't pay much less for these processors than you did in the second half of last year. And even if Intel is proud to remind us that more than 70 different quad-core models are offered by the company, it is also clear that these processors carry huge profit margins and Intel won't drop the prices on these chips if it does not have to.

AMD's quad-cores on the other hand are already touching the $200 mark and we have seen several retailers offering the Phenom 9500 for $199.95. And in this case, we can confirm, quad-cores have arrived in the mainstream.