How Low Can You Go?

This past week AMD released six new Athlon II processors featuring dual, triple, and quad cores. I was able to get a hold of the Athlon II X2 260 and Athlon II X4 640 and put them through their paces. I was also able to fully review the MSI 890GXM-G65 with these processors, and have come to the happy conclusion that it makes for a very good match.
    Are we tired yet of AMD pushing out slightly faster Athlon IIs and lowering the prices on the entire line?  I’m not.  Readers of this shouldn’t be either!  Last year AMD shook up the budget processor world with the release of their well received Athlon II series of processors.  The Athlon II X4 620 was truly a groundbreaking quad core processor, not so much in design, but that it could attain a $99 price point at introduction.  The Athlon II X2 250 also broke some barriers as it had 2 MB of L2 cache along with a 3 GHz clockspeed, which made it a terrific budget desktop performer and gaming CPU, all for around $76.  Between these were the Athlon II X3s which split the difference in price and performance.

AMD Athlon II X4 640/X2 260 Processors and the MSI 890GXM-G65 Motherboard Review - Processors 31

    I think it is pretty reasonable to say that AMD is ruling the roost in the sub-$130 category.  While they certainly are not increasing their marketshare by leaps and bounds, they are soaking up customers looking for value platforms, and Intel so far has enjoyed ruling the mainstream and enthusiast performance circles and its fatter margins.  While Intel has made some inroads with their latest generation i3 processors, the overall bundle as compared to what AMD has to offer is still more expensive and less feature laden than what AMD has to offer.  Pairing a $99 quad core with a 880G based board will give users good graphics performance, excellent video playback abilities, and some serious number crunching ability combined with next generation SATA 6G support and (most likely) USB 3.0.

    This week AMD released a whole bevy of new Athlon II processors, which essentially increases overall clockspeed by 100 MHz, plus adds a couple of energy efficient models to the mix.  This in turn will lower the prices on the previous models of the Athlon II processors.  For the X4 market, the 2.8 GHz X4 635 will now become the $99 product.

 X4 640  3.0 GHz  95 Watts  4 cores  $122
 X3 445  3.1 GHz  95 Watts  3 cores   $87
 X2 260  3.2 GHz  65 Watts  2 cores  $76
 X4 610e  2.4 GHz  45 Watts  4 cores  $143
 X3 415e  2.5 GHz  45 Watts  3 cores  $102
 X2 245e  2.9 GHz  45 Watts  2 cores  $77

    What is most interesting here is the X2 245e, which is a 45 watt rated part, but is only 300 MHz in speed behind the 65 watt X2 260.  All of these new parts are based on revision C3 designs.  I think it is fairly obvious that GLOBALFOUNDRIES is really hitting their stride with their 45 nm SOI process in terms of power efficiency and clockspeed.

    The X4 and X3 chips feature a die of 169 mm squared, while the X2, even with its much larger L2 cache per core, is a svelte 117 mm squared.  Compare this to the large 258 mm squared die size of the Deneb based cores (Phenom II X3/X4) or the much larger Thuban (Phenom II X6) which is somewhere in the 330 mm squared region.  Due to defect rates increasing exponentially with die size, the smaller the die typically equals far better yields.  Using our trusty yield calculator, we see that approximately 357 Propus (Athlon II X4) dies can be placed on a 300 mm wafer.  Let us assume that we are seeing an 80% yield on fully functional X4 die, which means that approximately 286 of them are good.  I have heard rumored that it costs around $12,000 to fully process a single SOI wafer.  This points to a raw cost of approximately $42 per good X4 die.  This does not factor in recovered die, or die that have a defect in a single core and can be turned into an X3.  When we take these into account, yields likely are approaching 90%+.  This does not include the price of transporting the raw dies, or processing them to be attached to their substrate so they can be fit into a socket.  Compare this number to a Thuban core, of which only 192 can be fit to a 300 mm wafer (and some of those dies are along the edge and are not complete).  So essentially twice the number of raw die can be placed on a wafer when manufacturing Athlon II X4 chips, again with significantly higher yields as compared to the much larger Thuban core.

AMD Athlon II X4 640/X2 260 Processors and the MSI 890GXM-G65 Motherboard Review - Processors 32

    Obviously cutting the L3 cache out of the processor has made AMD far leaner when it comes to manufacturing budget level products.  Certainly it is sad to see that extra performance go away, but when considering the raw processing power and price, it is hard to argue with what AMD has done.

    As a consumer, truly the only logical choices when buying a new budget system would be to go for an i3 or i5 processor from Intel, or the AM3 based Athlon IIs.  It makes very little sense to jump on an inexpensive Core 2 based product, as that socket infrastructure is a dead end, and all motherboard manufacturers have stopped developing for those products.  And as for buying an i3 based system, the lowest priced i3 processor is $119 US, and it is a dual core product running at 2.9 GHz with HyperThreading.  H55 and H57 based motherboards also exhibit a good $15 to $20 premium over comparable AMD boards (both 700 and 800 series).  For $40 less when buying a processor and motherboard, a user can get a true quad core running at 2.9 GHz, potentially with slightly better graphics performance and features provided by the 785G/880G chipset.

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