Because AMD is launching four processors today, we have to break this down model by model. Let’s start with the Athlon II X2 250.
We suspected that the Athlon II X2 would be a bit weak in media encoding/productivity apps, but had hoped it would pick up speed in games due to its 3 GHz clock speed and twin 1 MB L2 caches. Because there are now a fair number of games able to benefit to some degree from threading, though, the Athlon II didn’t show particularly well in those titles either. The Athlon II X2 250 trades blows with Intel’s Pentium E6300, but for the most part, the Intel processor comes out on top.
The Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition also trades blows with Intel’s Pentium. This time AMD wins more than it loses, but at a slightly higher cost. That’s also in a heads-up drag race, though—stock clocks to stock clocks. In this battle, AMD has an unlocked multiplier on its side, plus reasonable headroom for overclocking to 3.7 GHz+. There’s also the possibility that, if you bought the right motherboard, you could be sitting on a quad-core-capable CPU. Unfortunately, it’s too early to tell how common these will be in the wild. An 80 W TDP sounds good on paper, but we found the Phenom II X2 to use more power than Intel’s 95 W Core 2 Quad Q8400 at idle and under load.
Both of the low-power Phenom IIs (X3 705e and X4 905e) will undoubtedly appeal to niche buyers. You probably wouldn’t purchase either for a standard desktop given price premiums that reflect lower power consumption. However, if you’re building an HTPC that needs to run quietly, using a Phenom II X4 905e is going to give you a huge performance boost versus any 65 W chip from AMD you might have been using before.
Of the four processors launching today, the Phenom II X2 550 BE is most interesting—and certainly worth $15 over the Athlon II X2, which doesn’t make as much sense. Priced in between the Intel Pentium E6300 and Core 2 Duo E7400, AMD’s solid little contender has an unlocked multiplier (to counter Intel’s easily-overclocked FSB), a massive shared L3 cache, and its full list of value-added extras (the E6300 drops SSE 4.1, while the E7400 loses VT-x virtualization acceleration).
At $100, the X2 550 BE is strong enough to earn a nod from the Tom’s Hardware crew. Match it up to an $85 motherboard like Gigabyte’s MA770T-UD3P and an affordable video card (check out the Radeon HD 4850 for under $100—I’m done recommending the Radeon HD 4770 given its current [un]availability); you’re looking at a plucky little gaming rig.