Tom's Hardware's 2010 Gift Guide: Part 1, For System Builders

Welcome to Part 1 of Tom's Hardware's 2010 Holiday Gift Guide. This first installment is geared toward system builders planning to pool some Christmas cash to build a new performance- or value-oriented system. We have something for everyone this year.
By: Sam Finch

This year, you were a gift-giving pro. You listened carefully when your friends and family dropped hints about their most wanted gifts. You even sacrificed your PC upgrade budget to ensure that everyone got what they wanted. ’Tis better to give than receive, right?

That’s all well and good, but what happens when the friends and family don’t hold up their end of the bargain? Because, without fail, "I’d sure like to spruce up my computer!" scores you little more than a webcam or $15 wireless mouse. Great. Like anything, if you want something done right, do it yourself.

But your current cash on hand? Yeah, about that. You need a high-octane powerhouse on a biodiesel budget. Roll up your sleeves (how else are you going to donate that plasma?) and get your ramen on for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In a week or two, you’ll have the capital to invest in a processor with a surprise inside—the AMD Phenom II X2 555 Black Edition.

On the surface, the 3.2 GHz 555 BE is respectable enough in its own right. In the era of Intel's six-core Gulftown and AMD's own hexa-core Thuban, it’s all too easy to sneer at anything less than a quartet of execution cores. But this dual-core processor’s 3.2 GHz clock rate makes it a decent enough option for gaming and lightly-threaded apps. And as an entry-level Socket AM3 processor, the 555 BE will drop into an 890FX motherboard (like this year’s budget motherboard recommendation, Gigabyte’s 890FXA-UD5), giving you the advantage of using DDR3 memory, plus other current-gen board-specific bonuses.

The 555’s Black Edition pedigree doesn’t need much introduction at this point, but it’s nevertheless worth mentioning that you get a lot of overclocking flexibility on a sub-$90 processor. Attach a halfway-decent cooler and pump up the frequency—you should be set until Bulldozer arrives next year.

Now, about that surprise: compare the 555 BE's Callisto die to AMD's quad-core Deneb-based CPUs. The two are remarkably close. So close, in fact, that the 555 BE is little more than a Phenom II X4 with two cores disabled. The vast majority of AMD enthusiast motherboards (including the 890FXA-UD5) include BIOS-level core unlocking capabilities, so connect the dots. You’re potentially getting a Phenom II X4 955 for less than one hundred bucks.

Yes, potentially. While the ideal scenario is buying a Phenom II X2 555 Black Edition that began life as a perfectly good Phenom II X4, it is possible that one (or both) dormant cores on your particular 555 BE were disabled because of poor yields. But even if you don’t wind up with a quad-core Phenom II to show for your efforts, you still have a capable dual-core chip with plenty of headroom to spare. We simply couldn't pass up the value of this chip for our 2010 gift guide, and we hope you agree.