AMD's launch of the Phenom II
X2 550 Black Edition brings the Phenom II processor line to a price point that
few people would have expected. The $100 processor market has always been about
compromise, with speed and cache sizes tend to be sacrificed first, and then
features like hardware virtualization tend to go missing as CPU prices spiral
AMD has taken the opposite approach with the Phenom II
X2 550 Black Edition processor, instead it offers this 3.1GHz chip 1MB L2 + 6MB
L3 cache, full virtualization support, and an unlocked multiplier to complete
the package. The 550 BE is essentially a Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition, but with two cores
instead of four. The drawback? While 6MB of shared L3 cache makes sense for a
quad-core processor, a dual core processor would be better served by having a
large, speedy L2 cache, which isn't the case here. However it does allow AMD to
re-bin some of its Phenom II processors, which helps keep the price of the
Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition low.
The other major strength of AMD's strategy with the
Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition and the Phenom II series is backwards compatibly.
Dropping this processor into existing AMD Socket AM2+ motherboards (and
potentially some Socket AM2 motherboards as well) makes for a very easy upgrade
for AMD users looking for quick speed boost, and keeps the overall cost of
building a Phenom II-based PC down considerably. Depending on the motherboard
users choose to install a Phenom II into, the processor can be used with either
DDR2 or DDR3 memory.
Fusion, BEMP and Overdrive 3.0 have added some real teeth to the Dragon
platform, and represent an actual bonus value for pairing up AMD's hardware
together. Fusion works as a handy tool that simply suspends all background
applications in order to minimize system resources getting tied up during
intensive computing. BEMP allows for one-click memory optimization, which saves
a lot of fiddling and fussing around with memory timings.
It's really AMD's Overdrive
3.0 that steals the show. It's superior to both NVIDIA and Intel's overclocking utilities, offering
finer control over a broader range of options for overclocking and system
tuning. While this software is aimed at the computer enthusiast, its purpose is
to make overclocking as easy and accessible as possible.
While the Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition is AMD's
fastest dual-core processor, it's generally slower in benchmarks than Intel's
fastest lineup of processors, the Intel E8xx family. When the performance numbers are
averaged out the Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition is about 20% slower than Intel's
Core 2 Duo E8500 processor. This might sound like a loss for AMD, but it's
important to remember thar the Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 retails for around $235
USD while the Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition is only $103 USD ($110 CDN, £62 GBP). In terms of
bang for buck, it's very difficult to go wrong with AMD's first dual-core
Overclocking the Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition was a
lot of fun, thanks to the unlocked multiplier and adjustable FSB. With only some
minor voltage tweaks, it was possible to take the 550BE from 3.1Ghz up to
3.795GHz. At that speed the Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition's scores in 3DMark08 Vantage jumped from 5253 up to 6255,
while the 3DMark06 CPU score went from 2490 up to
3001. At that speed the 3.795GHz Phenom II X2 550 was effectively
faster than the 3.16GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8500, not bad at all!
One area where Intel does consistently trump AMD is power
usage. The Core 2 Duo processor family has managed to consistently outperform
AMD's Phenom and Athlon lines power efficiency, with processors that are both
faster in general performance and draw less power. AMD's move to 45nm
manufacturing has made this competition a little less one-sided, but they still
have a long way to go before their processors are efficient as Intel's.
By bringing the technology in its flagship processor
line down to the $100 price point, AMD has made a very compelling argument for
those debating putting a socket AM3 Phenom II X2 processor into their PC system.
It's an easy way to turn an aging AM2+ Athlon system into a high-performance
gaming machine, and it can easily transition to a new socket AM3 motherboard and
then overclocked for even greater performance. AMD's Phenom II X2 550 Black
Edition can't compete directly with Intel's fastest Core 2 Duo processors, but
its overall value more than makes up for it.
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