It only took two months, but AMD finally has a flagship to lead its march forward with Socket AM3.
We’re still not looking at a Core i7-killer (or even competitor) here. After all, AMD’s fastest offering isn’t able to match even the slowest i7 chip, unless you count gaming, where most of these quad-core chips perform so similarly that it isn’t worth factoring in the tenths of a frame.
Rather, AMD was gunning for Intel’s Core 2 Quad Q9550. That actually turns out to be a significant target, too. Aside from the DP-capable Core 2 Extreme QX9775—a $1,500 part—there is only one other Core 2 Quad left for AMD to usurp: the 3 GHz Core 2 Quad Q9650. Performance-wise, this means the Phenom II X4 955 is still an upper mid-range processor, dolled up with an unlocked clock multiplier and a platform message that bests the Core 2 Quad lineup (thanks to a strong software infrastructure supporting tweak-happy enthusiasts), yet falls short of Core i7 and its superior CrossFire/SLI ecosystem.
At the end of the day, this comes down to price for most folks. If a Phenom II X4 955 plus 790FX/GX-based motherboard plus 4 GB DDR3-1333 memory kit are the upper end of your budget (let’s call that about $500), you won’t go wrong here. We were only able to get 3.6 GHz out of the processor using AMD’s PIB heatsink/fan solution before peaking over 60 degrees C and losing Prime95 threads. Overclocking past that is going to take a more substantial cooler…and ideally not the first near-37 degree C day of the year in southern California. Conversely, AMD has a compelling collection of software to complement its hardware package—and with Overdrive 3.0 and Fusion, those apps have evolved beyond glorified BIOS modification to include a combination of extras you can use to save power, increase performance, and really take more granular control over how your PC operates.
But a Core i7 920 plus X58-based motherboard plus 6 GB DDR3-1333 kit costs about $100 more—that’s tantalizingly close, and frankly still the route we’d go given the many instances where even the 2.66 GHz processor simply walks the rest of the pack. You might not get Overdrive or Fusion, but the addition of CrossFire and SLI support is fairly significant, especially for the gamers who’ve stuck with Nvidia GPUs.
There’s no doubt that AMD is showing signs of life. The progression of its hardware plods along with the launch of this Phenom II X4 955 and the Radeon HD 4890 earlier this month. The company’s in-house software folks are making a strong appeal to enthusiasts with a couple of interesting tuning utilities. And although we aren’t expecting changes to AMD’s chipset lineup until 2010, the 790GX/FX amply addresses discrete graphics connectivity. Until then, a shift to Socket AM3/DDR3 adds single-digit percent increases to an already-efficient memory subsystem.