Overclocking: Core i7 Vs. Phenom II


This match-up needs no introduction—but I’m going to throw one down anyway.

It’s no secret that Intel has dominated our performance tests over the past year. First, its Core 2 Duos at 45 nm gave enthusiasts a great platform for aggressive, yet relatively safe overclocking. The company’s Core 2 Quads cost quite a bit more, but they managed to deliver smoking speeds in the applications optimized for multi-threaded execution.

The recent Core i7 launch further cemented Intel’s position as the performance champion. Its Core i7 965 Extreme, clocked at 3.2 GHz, demonstrated gains straight across the board versus its outgoing flagship, the Core 2 Extreme QX9770. And the Core i7 920, Intel’s sub-$300 entry-level model running at 2.66 GHz, seems to have little trouble reaching up to 4 GHz on air cooling.

There was once a time when Intel didn’t handle its technology shifts as smoothly. As recently as the Pentium 4 Prescott core (OK, that was a while back), Intel struggled to maintain an advantage against AMD’s Athlon 64. But now, with the marketing of its "tick-tock" approach to rolling out lithography advancements and micro-architecture tweaks, things have certainly turned around. How is AMD expected to compete?

Core i7 920 and Phenom II X4 940 go head-to-head

Up until now, AMD has relied on the loosely-translated term "value" to keep in the game. On its own, the Phenom X4-series is a moderate performer. AMD knows this, and has priced the chip more competitively than Intel’s quad-core offerings to attract attention. However, the Phenom hasn’t had to exist alone in an ecosystem backed by third-party vendors. It’s instead complemented by AMD’s own chipsets, mainly the 790GX and 790FX. Of course, those platforms extend comprehensive CrossFire support for its own graphics cards, which have been capturing hearts since mid-2008.

Combined, AMD’s processors, chipsets, and GPUs have fared better than any one of those components would have alone. Thus, we’d consider the company’s efforts to emphasize its Spider platform—the cumulative result of all three puzzle pieces—a success.

AMD Needs Something New

In light of a new competitive challenge—Intel’s Core i7—AMD is revamping its Spider platform with a new processor and the addition of software able to tie all of the hardware together. As you no doubt already know from reading Bert’s story, this latest effort is called Dragon.

But we’re not here to rehash the details of Phenom II. Rather, in light of significant enhancements to the CPU architecture’s overclocking capabilities (and indeed, confirmation from AMD that all of the "magic" that went into its ACC [Advanced Clock Calibration] technology is now baked into Phenom II), we’re eager to compare the value of AMD’s fastest 45 nm chip to Intel’s entry-level Core i7 920—the one most enthusiasts would be likely to eye as an overclocking contender.

In the pages that follow, we’ll describe how each platform was overclocked, just how hot each system got, how much they cost, how well they perform at their top speeds, and, ultimately, which should be on the short list for your next upgrade.

Chris Angelini
Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.
  • Roffey123
    At last a P2/i7 comparison to shut the people whining for one up. In all I think its a fair comparison - although I am disappointed that AMD's OC potential wasn't as good as they made it out to be. But as all overclockers know - not all chips are the same or have the same OC potential.

    The 3DS Max benchmark was puzzling as well, considering that i7 has 8 threads at its disposal. Do you guys have any idea as to why the AMD beat the i7 in that test; despite having only half as many threads?
  • unclefester
    I thought it funny they use an ATI card on the Intel board (not that it makes a difference).
    Would have liked to see what the PII can gain or not gain by using the FSB not just the multiplier.
    Didn't see anything about memory timings either. As most PII OC's have been done at @880MHz.
    Overall a decent review.
    So Ford vs Chevy goes on.
  • apache_lives
    I would love to see a high end overclocked Core 2 Quad 9 series in the tests here to see a price comparison - cheaper and already established platform etc.

    Also note that i7 platform should also feel more alive and responsive (un-benchmarkable) thanks to high memory bandwidths and more threads to balance things out like the P4C's and CL2 Dual Channel DDR1 - reguardless if it performed lower then the AMD A64's at the time it felt more responsive!

    Intel also has that more solid platform to back that CPU and options for Crossfire AND SLi so its more the premium option, but that cheaper AMD setup is too close to the i7 for my liking - a few shifts in prices and models should show an interesting result in the new few weeks.

    AM3 should be interesting, higher headroom + lower power etc (like 939 to AM2).
  • cangelini
    With the Black Edition, that's really the value there. You want to use the multiplier for a clean, easy overclock. Once you've found your ceiling, use the reference clock to fine-tune the setup.
  • vekere
    I hear AMD is going to hire Sylar to look at the new Core i7 processor so this year we will have an answer.
  • kschoche
    The WINRAR tests are so close to exactly half the time on the Intel chip compared to the AMD chip that I'd love to see how the results show up if you turn off hyperthreading, not that its a particularly meaningful result, but would be cool to look at still.
  • jtnstnt
    I'm curious about the heatsink selection on the Phenom II. I looked up the Ajigo MF091 and it didn't look too impressive. While the Intel system gets the Thermalright 120mm True extreme. Whats up with that?
  • jtnstnt
    Please explain.
  • apache_lives
    jtnstntI'm curious about the heatsink selection on the Phenom II. I looked up the Ajigo MF091 and it didn't look too impressive. While the Intel system gets the Thermalright 120mm True extreme. Whats up with that?
    Heh very good point there, although it depends on wether the limits of the OC was architectural or thermal
  • jtnstnt
    I was wondering because i didn't see an explanation in the article.