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Intel's ongoing processor shortage has opened a unique window of opportunity for AMD in the gaming market's entry-level space, giving it a tangible advantage in both pricing and availability. But the Athlon line-up will remain competitive, even after Intel corrects its supply issues.
The Zen cores in these low-end CPUs confer many of the same positive performance characteristics seen in higher-end Ryzen CPUs. But it's the pairing of Vega 3 engine that really benefit gamers without the money to spend on add-in graphics cards. While these graphics cores do have strict limitations, meaning you'll have to keep your expectations in check, they facilitate playable frame rates in several titles at lower resolutions and quality settings. The Pentiums struggle under those same workloads. The Athlons also provide solid 4K video playback performance.
AMD doesn't officially support overclocking with its Athlons. However, nearly every motherboard vendor now provides firmware that unlocks easy overclocking. You're simply prevented from tuning the memory or graphics subsystems. At least the company equips all three Athlon models with the same graphics cores, meaning they have similar resources dedicated to rendering and a 1 GHz clock rate. In other words, the relatively small frequency bumps on the host processing side are the only feature differentiating one Athlon from another. Overclocking blurs that, making the lowest-end model more attractive for its lower price tag.
As we've seen from other AMD CPUs, all of our Athlons topped out at the same frequency. For these 14nm chips, that high water mark is 3.9 GHz. Consequently, they offer the same performance after we get done tuning them. There's little reason, then, to spend an extra $20 on the Athlon 240GE when you can buy the $55 Athlon 200GE and get the same speed from it after a few simply firmware adjustments. Best of all, you can get those results out of AMD's stock thermal solution.
AMD's Athlon wins the gaming competition hands-down if you're leaning on integrated graphics exclusively. But Intel's Pentium line-up is still attractive for non-gaming tasks or if you plan to pair the chips with low-end graphics cards. In those situations, Intel's single-threaded performance yields snappier performance in applications. Meanwhile, those CPUs can push discrete graphics cards harder than the Athlon processors. It's notable that the Athlon processors also accelerate AVX instruction processing, while Intel's Pentium CPUs lack this capability.
In either case, AMD's Athlon still serves up more than acceptable desktop performance at a lower price point than the Pentiums. Budget-oriented enthusiasts get more performance per dollar as a result.
Intel is firing back with faster Pentiums that reach up to 4.0 GHz. Without significant improvements to its graphics architecture, though, we don't expect the competitive landscape to change much. The company is also tackling its pricing and availability issues by offering Pentiums with disabled on-die graphics. Those models are more meant for OEM systems that come with add-in graphics cards, though.
Overall, AMD wins the low-end processor market with its Athlon series, and overclocking sweetens the deal.
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Paul Alcorn is the Deputy Managing Editor for Tom's Hardware US. He writes news and reviews on CPUs, storage and enterprise hardware.
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