The Sandy Bridge Factor
Intel’s Sandy Bridge architecture has received a lot of attention since its introduction in early January, first for its impressive performance, and more recently for the P67/H67 chipset’s 3 Gb/s SATA performance degradation problem. Despite this hiccup, Intel representatives tell us that the B3 stepping of Cougar Point is already being shipped to vendors and should emerge sooner than originally expected. The new architecture is here to stay and could potentially impact every desktop CPU price point it touches.
Intel is being a lot more aggressive with those price points, too. The lowest-priced Lynnfield-based CPU with a true quad-core architecture (that’s the Core i5-750) starts at about $200. But the Sandy Bridge-based Core i5-2300 can be purchased for $185. This means that Intel’s newest quad-core processors are no more expensive than AMD’s premium Phenom II X4 970.
And what about the $100-to-$150 market? When the dual-core Hyper-Threaded Core i3-2100 and -2120 finally make their way to market, we expect them to be available in that strategically-priced range. Preliminary testing from our launch coverage, Intel’s Second-Gen Core CPUs: The Sandy Bridge Review, showed us that the new Core i3 CPUs have tremendous gaming potential, and might even be able to challenge AMD’s quad-core flagship in this arena.
Indeed, game performance is what this article is all about. Up until now, AMD's Phenom II X4 and Athlon II X3/X4 processors have vigorously defended their status as value-packed engines in inexpensive gaming systems using sub-$200 price tags. Between June of last year (Game-Off: Seven Sub-$150 Processors Compared) and now, we've seen AMD add a couple hundred megahertz to each price point. Yes, we like more performance without a corresponding rate-hike. But the company is competing with architectural updates that make a far more profound impact on performance. Will incremental speed bumps be enough to help the company defend its position in the sub-$200 market, or will the least-expensive Sandy Bridge-based processors steal the spotlight?
We’re comparing the relevant sub-$200 CPUs; 12 models in total. Before we talk about the contenders, let’s address the processors not being included. We’re leaving out the Core i5-750, as we’ve already proven that the Sandy Bridge-based Core i5s are faster gaming processors. We’re not including dual-core processors without Hyper-Threading because we’ve shown that modern games require a minimum of three threads to demonstrate the best possible performance. LGA 775 did not make our list either, because it’s now three generations old.
Even after trying to narrow down the field, we have a lot of CPUs to test. The Clarkdale-based Core i3-550 and Core i3-560 are known decent products, and the Core i3-2100 and Core i3-2120 will show us what Intel’s newest dual-core Hyper-Threaded offerings can accomplish. The Sandy Bridge-based Core i5-2300 and Core i5-2400 represent true quad-core performance. Three quad-core models and the hexa-core Phenom II X6 1075T represent AMD's highest-end processors. On the lower end of the spectrum, we have the fastest quad- and triple-core AMD processors available for under $150: the Athlon II X4 645 and the Athlon II X3 455.
|Header Cell - Column 0||AMD Athlon II X3 455||AMD Athlon II X4 645||AMD Phenom II X4 925||Intel Core i3-550||Intel Core i3-2100||AMD Phenom II X4 955|
|Process:||45 nm||45 nm||45 nm||32 nm||32 nm||45 nm|
|Cores (Threads):||3||4||4||2 (4)||2 (4)||4|
|Clock Speed:||3.3 GHz||3.1 GHz||2.8 GHz||3.2 GHz||3.1 GHz||3.2 GHz|
|Interface:||AM2+/AM3||AM2+/AM3||AM2+/AM3||LGA 1156||LGA 1155||AM2+/AM3|
|L3 Cache:||N/A||N/A||6 MB||4 MB||3 MB||6 MB|
|Thermal Envelope:||95 W||95 W||95 W||73 W||65 W||125 W|
|Online Price:||$88.99||$118.99||$124.99||$124.99||$135 (est.)||$144.99|
|Header Cell - Column 0||Intel Core i3-560||Intel Core i3-2120||AMD Phenom II X4 970||Intel Core i5-2300||AMD Phenom II X6 1075T||Intel Core i5-2400|
|Codename:||Clarkdale||Sandy Bridge||Deneb||Sandy Bridge||Thuban||Sandy Bridge|
|Process:||32 nm||32 nm||45 nm||32 nm||45 nm||32 nm|
|Cores (Threads):||2 (4)||2 (4)||4||4||6||4|
|Clock Speed:||3.33 GHz||3.3 GHz||3.5 GHz||2.8 GHz (3.1 Turbo)||3.0 GHz (3.5 Turbo)||3.1 GHz (3.4 Turbo)|
|Interface:||LGA 1156||LGA 1155||AM2+/AM3||LGA 1155||AM2+/AM3||LGA 1155|
|L3 Cache:||4 MB||3 MB||6 MB||6 MB||6 MB||6 MB|
|Thermal Envelope:||73 W||65 W||125 W||95 W||125 W||95 W|
|Online Price:||$149.99||$150 (est.)||$179.99||$184.99||$189.99||$189.99|