Conclusion: You Can Keep Your Quad-Core
As my 2.8 GHz Pentium 4 rides off into the sunset, it’ll be replaced by a younger, lither dual-core Athlon X2 4850e. The decision doesn’t have anything to do with performance—after all, the 4850e gets completely outclassed by Intel’s Core 2 Duo E7200. Rather, I run a four-monitor configuration and need a Radeon HD 3450 in SurroundView—though I should also point out that I went with a 780G-based motherboard. AMD is positioning the 740G as its most cost-effective solution, but you can buy 780G platforms for $10-$15 more, so why not step up to a DX10 component with Blu-ray playback? With 780G being as good as it is, there’s really no reason to consider 740G at this point.
AMD’s 780G is also a more fair comparison to the new G45 from Intel. As the foundation for a business box or home theater PC, G45 (paired to a dual-core processor) is actually respectable. Its most glaring weakness remains lackluster graphics performance, a fact not likely to change as a result of simple driver updates. At least the inclusion of hardware-accelerated video decoding—even if it doesn’t seem to be as thorough as what AMD enables in 780G—goes a long way to make Blu-ray playback a very smooth experience. Finally, there’s the raw performance of Intel’s Core 2 processors helping make G45 even more attractive. When a dual-core offering can outperform its competitor’s pricier quad-core solution, you have to take notice.
Here’s where the ultimate buying decision gets tricky. Already we see examples of encoding applications and games that realize significant gains from four cores. Is it worth spending the extra money today in the hope that more software is updated to better utilize threading? That all depends on your situation.
If you’re running a couple of PCs—one for work and one for play—than a dual-core setup is still more than enough for any business desktop. In the comparison between Intel’s Core 2 Duo and AMD’s Phenom X4, the Core 2 costs less, uses fewer watts at idle, saves even more energy under load, and delivers better performance in a majority of desktop applications. The parallelism of a quad-core CPU gets more important on your gaming/entertainment machine. That’s the segment you’ll see get the most attention from software developers. And as you saw from some of our tests, an app optimized for threading can throw up some significantly better numbers, making the extra cores worthwhile.
At the end of the day, I’ll keep my dual-core setup. The price difference between the E7200 and Q9300—as apples to apples as you can get in comparing two- and four-core processors—is more than $140. I’d rather save that chunk of change and snag a Radeon HD 4850 graphics card instead.
Editor’s Note: In this piece, we’ve centered on frequency as the point of comparison. Keep an eye out for a follow-up by Patrick Schmid that factors price and power consumption into the equation as well.