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AMD Athlon II X3: Affordable Compromise

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AMD’s Athlon II X3 processors get placed under the microscope. Starting at $70, them seem to be an excellent value. How well do they hold up in real life against the X2s and the $100 X4 630?

Athlon II X3 Processors: An Affordable Compromise

July 12, 2010 by Lawrence Lee

Product
AMD Athlon II AM3 Processors
X3 440
X3 435
X3 415e
Manufacturer
Street Price
US$70
US$75
US$102

The triple core processors from AMD have humble origins, being recycled quad
cores with a single non-functioning or faulty core (if the supply is low, fully
functioning cores may be simply disabled to satisfy demand). Packaging and selling
these chips as X3s makes perfect financial sense, but the original Phenom X3s
met little success being hampered by the low clock speeds and high power consumption
that plagued all first generation Phenoms. In addition, they weren’t very cost
effective with pricing much closer to AMD’s X4s rather than X2s.

Fast forward to today and it’s a completely different story. Phenom II addressed
many of the issues of its predecessor and Athlon II, the low cost offshoot of
Phenom II, has brought budget multi-core processors to the masses. You can now
find quad cores for as little as US$100 and triple cores for only US$70. In
this roundup we will be focusing on the Athlon II X3 435 (2.9 GHz) and 440 (3.0
GHz), which can be found for as low as US$70 and US$75 respectively online.
With such aggressive pricing, the Athlon II X3 seems on paper at least, to be
an easy choice for a budget desktop processor. We have also thrown a pair of
energy efficient chip in the mix, the 45W Athlon II X3 415e, and the older 65W
Phenom II X3 705e, both of which run at a very modest 2.5 GHz.

AM3 Dual/Triple Core Processors
Model
Clock Speed
Cache
(L2+L3)
TDP
Street Price†
Athlon II X2 245
2.9 GHz
2MB
65W
$59
Athlon II X2 250
3.0 GHz
2MB
65W
$62
Athlon II X2 255
3.1 GHz
2MB
65W
$70
Athlon II X2 260
3.2 GHz
2MB
65W
$75
Phenom II X2 550
3.1 GHz
1+6MB
80W
$90
Phenom II X2 555
3.2 GHz
1+6MB
80W
$99
Athlon II X3 415e
2.5 GHz
1.5MB
45W
$102*
Athlon II X3 435
2.9 GHz
1.5MB
95W
$70
Athlon II X3 440
3.0 GHz
1.5MB
95W
$75
Athlon II X3 445
3.1 GHz
1.5MB
95W
$90
Phenom II X3 705e
2.5 GHz
1.5+6MB
65W
$140
Phenom II X3 710
2.6 GHz
1.5+6MB
95W
$120
Phenom II X3 720
2.8 GHz
1.5+6MB
95W
$130
according to PriceGrabber.com
*retail 1000-unit tray price
Tested processors are in bold.

The X3s will be pitted against the dual core Athlon II X2 250/255 and Phenom
II X2 555, and the Phenom II X4 630 to see how well they compare to a budget
quad core CPU.

TEST METHODOLOGY

Test Platform:

Measurement and Analysis Tools

  • CPU-Z
    to monitor CPU frequency and voltage.
  • SpeedFan
    to monitor CPU temperatures.
  • Real Temp
    to monitor CPU temperatures.
  • CPUBurn
    processor stress software.
  • Prime95
    processor stress software.
  • Media Player
    Classic – Home Cinema
    to play x264/MKV video using DXVA.
  • Eset NOD32 as
    an anti-virus benchmark.
  • WinRAR as an
    archiving benchmark.
  • iTunes
    an audio encoding benchmark.
  • TMPGEnc
    Xpress
    as a video encoding benchmark.
  • HandBrake as a
    video encoding benchmark
  • Adobe
    Photoshop CS2
    as an image manipulation benchmark.
  • PCMark05
    as a general system benchmark.
  • Seasonic
    Power Angel
    AC power meter, used to measure the power consumption
    of the system.
  • Digital Multimeters used to measure the current and voltage across
    the AUX12V connector
  • Custom-built, four-channel variable DC power supply, used to power
    and regulate the CPU fan.

Timed Benchmark Test Details

  • NOD32: In-depth virus scan of a folder containing 32 files of varying
    size with many RAR and ZIP archives.
  • WinRAR: Archive creation with a folder containing 68 files of varying
    size (less than 50MB).
  • iTunes: Conversion of an MP3 file to AAC.
  • TMPGEnc: Encoding a XVID AVI file with VC-1.
  • HandBrake: Encoding a XVID AVI file with H.264.
  • Photoshop: Image manipulation using a variety of filters, a derivation
    of Driver Heaven’s Photoshop
    Benchmark V3
    (test image resized to 4500×3499).

Our first test procedure is designed to determine the overall system power
consumption at various states (measured using a Seasonic Power Angel). To stress
CPUs we use either Prime95 (large FFTs setting) or CPUBurn depending on which
produces higher system power consumption. For video playback we use a x264-encoded
1080p clip played with Media Player Classic – Home Cinema.


1080p | 24fps | ~14mbps

x264 1080p: Spaceship is a 1080p x264 clip encoded from the
Blu-ray version of an animated short film. It features a hapless robot
trying to repair a lamp on a spaceship.

Secondly, we run a series of benchmarks, most of which are timed tests of real-world
applications. During the first 10~15 seconds, AC system power is measured at
the wall (and later converted to DC) and current/voltage measurements are taken
at the AUX12V connector to determine how much power is drawn by the CPU and
VRM circuitry alone.

Certain services and features like Superfetch and System Restore are disabled
to prevent them from affecting our results. Aero glass is left enabled if supported.
We also make note if energy saving features like Cool’n’Quiet and SpeedStep
do not function properly.

Estimating DC Power

The following power efficiency figures were obtained for the
Seasonic SS-400ET used in our test system:

Seasonic SS-400ET Test Results
DC Output (W)
21.2
41.6
60.2
81.9
104.7
124.1
145.2
AC Input (W)
32.0
58.0
78.0
102.0
128.0
150.0
175.0
Efficiency
66.3%
71.7%
77.1%
80.3%
81.8%
82.8%
83.0%

This data is enough to give us a very good estimate of DC demand in our
test system. We extrapolate the DC power output from the measured AC power
input based on this data. We won’t go through the math; it’s easy enough
to figure out for yourself if you really want to.

TEST RESULTS

Operating Voltages

Comparison: Operating Voltages (CPU-Z)
Model
Clock Speed
Idle
Load
Athlon II X2 250
3.0 GHz
0.985V
1.308V
Athlon II X2 255
3.1 GHz
1.032V
1.358V
Phenom II X2 555
3.2 GHz
1.032V
1.352V
Athlon II X3 415e
2.5 GHz
0.959V
1.158V
Athlon II X3 435
2.9 GHz
1.009V
1.302V
Athlon II X3 440
3.0 GHz
1.082V
1.411V
Phenom II X3 705e
2.5 GHz
0.956V
1.152V
Phenom II X3 720
2.8 GHz
1.032V
1.299V
Athlon II X4 630
2.8 GHz
1.035V
1.287V

Before we jump into power consumption numbers, please note the operating voltages
of the processors tested today as sort of a disclaimer. Different samples of
the same processor often run at slightly different operating voltages which
can greatly affect power consumption. With Cool’n’Quiet and C1E enabled, most
AMD chips typically run with a core voltage of about 1.0V when idle and 1.325V
on load.

Power Consumption

All the processors tested delivered less than 50W DC system power consumption
when idle, except surprisingly, the Phenom II X3 705e. The Athlon II X2s, X3
415e, and X3 440e did better than the rest when idle and during x264 playback.

The measurements taken from the AUX12V connector mirror the results for system
power — the Phenom IIs all use more power when idle and during video playback.
On load, the X3 ‘e’ variants came out on top with the 45W X3 415e beating out
the 65W X3 705e by 8W.

Thermals

For our thermal test, each CPU was paired with the Scythe Kabuto with its stock
fan spinning at ~800 rpm. Measurements were taken using the motherboard’s sensor
via SpeedFan after the temperature stabilized on load.

No surprises here, the CPU load temperature is proportional to load power consumption.
With a quality heatsink, none of these processors should be difficult to cool
at stock settings.

PERFORMANCE

PCMark05

PCMark05 is a synthetic benchmark suite with aggregates the results of 11 different
system tests including web page rendering, file decryption, video and audio
editing, and 3D usage.

PCMark05 favor processors with more cores most, followed by clock speed and
cache.

Adobe Photoshop

Our Photoshop test is a variation of Driver Heaven’s Photoshop Benchmark V3
using a smaller test image. A variety of filters are applied to the image and
the times elapsed are added up.

In applications more dependent on clock speed, the X2s at 3 GHz and higher
edge out the competition.

ESET NOD32

Our NOD32 test is a simple anti-virus scan of a folder with dozens of files
including archives. It’s one of the most common tasks performed on a PC.

This test also favors high clock speeds so the X2s come out on top once again.
Generally the less capable processors completed this task with lower power consumption
with the exception of the Athlon II X2s and the X3 440 which noticeably bucked
this trend.

WinRAR

Our WinRAR test consists of archiving a RAR file with a large group of files
of varying size.

WinRAR is a program that loves cache and clock speed resulting in high marks
for the X2s and X3s, even the 705e which runs at a paltry 2.5 GHz. In this test
the X3 440/435 and X4 640 are both slower and less power efficient than the
rest of the field.

iTunes

Our iTunes test is simply the encoding of a MP3 file into AAC.

The X2 255/250 once again stand out with low AAC encoding times and excellent
energy efficiency.

TMPGEnc

Our TMPGEnc test consists of encoding an XVID-encoded AVI to VC-1.

Most video encoding applications like TMPGEnc are multithreaded, so it is no
surprise to see the X4 630 lead the pack by a considerable margin. The X3 440
places second tied with the X2 555 — in some circumstances, extra cache and
a clock speed bump can overcome a higher number of cores. In terms of power
consumption, the X3 440 and X2 255 were a little more energy efficient than
expected.

HandBrake

A similar test to TMPGEnc, only this time encoding to H.264.

Programs like HandBrake that make better use of multiple cores, favor 3/4 core
processors heavily. Even the 2.5 GHz X3 705e and X3 415e performed well in this
test.

Benchmark Power Consumption

Our timed benchmark results multiplied by the average power consumption during
each test gives us an estimate of how much total power was used during testing.

When it came to how much power was expended performing our timed benchmarks,
the difference between the processors was small. The X3 435 had the highest
consumption at 35.72 watt-hours, but this was only 18% higher than the must
frugal CPU of the bunch, the X3 415e.

Processor Value

To judge performance/value, we gave all our timed benchmarks equal weighting
with the top performer, the X4 630, given a score of 100 on our performance
scale. Similarly, the CPU that delivered the best performance per dollar, the
X2 250, was given a score of 100 on the value scale.


Performance and value, sorted by CPU pricing.

On our test suite, the strongest CPU turned out to be the Athlon II X4 630,
thanks mostly to its dominance in our two video encoding tests. The Phenom II
X2 555 was a close second, followed by the X3 440 and X3 720 which gave 94~95%
of the performance of the X4 630. The rest of the field trailed by only 2~3%
with the exception of the low power X3 705e and 415e which fell well behind
the competition.

When it comes to value however, the X4 630 and X2 555 are no match for the
Athlon II X2s and X3s. Thanks to their low exceptionally low price-tags, they
score very high on the value meter. From this perspective it seems that the
X3 435 and 440 would be an affordable and safe compromise if you’re unsure whether
a dual or quad core is right for you. In many cases, their high clock speeds
and lower prices make up for the loss of one core over a quad.

The X2 250 or 255 may be the better choice if energy efficiency is the most
important criterion, but with the margins so tight between the processors, we
don’t think this is a difference maker. Getting a good chip or a poor chip could
easily tip things one way or the other. For example, our X3 435 sample uses
more power than our X3 440 sample despite having lower operating voltages and
being slower by 100 MHz, defying common logic. If they had been cut from the
same wafer, the results might have been reversed.

The X3 705e, once a sought-after energy efficient gem, looks rather dated in
the face of the other triple core processors in our roundup. Its 65W TDP is
decidedly unimpressive compared to the X3 415e. Even the 95W X3s aren’t that
far off when it comes to power consumption.

Operating Cost

For argument sake, let’s compare the energy cost of our test platform using
the two chips with the best and worst power consumption, the X3 415e and X3
435. For our hypothetical scenario we will leave the system idle for 6 hours
a day, then we will run our timed benchmark suite 15 times which will take about
5.7 hours on the X3 435 and 6.5 hours on the X3 415e. This imaginary system
will be shut down after its completed the last run, and the process will repeat
every day for a year.

Estimated Yearly Energy Cost:
6 hours idle + 15 benchmark runs (5.7~6.5 hours) daily
Electricity Rate
X3 415e
X3 435
Difference
340.4 kWh
385.5 kWh
45.1 kWh
$0.10/kWh
$34.04
$38.55
$4.51
$0.20/kWh
$68.08
$77.10
$9.02
$0.30/kWh
$102.12
$115.65
$13.53
$0.40/kWh
$136.16
$154.20
$18.04

By our calculations, the X3 435 will use about 45.1 kWh (AC) more than the
X3 415e in one year. In locations where electricity is relatively cheap, say
10 cents per kWh, the difference is less than $5 between the two processors.
The higher financial cost of using the less efficient chip isn’t significant
unless you work the system harder than our scenario and/or live in a region
with much higher energy rates. For most of the other processors in our roundup,
the difference is even smaller, to the point where we would consider it negligible
in most cases.

Final Thoughts

Though it has been several years since the debut of quad core processors, many
programs still aren’t capable of taking advantage of the extra threads. Unless
you’re strictly encoding video and the like, this creates a quandary for some
users as to whether to go for a higher clocked dual core or a lower clocked
quad core. If you’re on a budget, the Athlon II X3 seems to cover all the bases.
Generally speaking, the 3rd core gives it a boost over equivalently-priced dual
core models in multithreaded applications and multitasking, and for regular
ho-hum programs, the higher clock speeds gives it a bump over the X4s with lower
clock speeds.

As for energy efficiency, compared to the rest of AMD’s budget chips, they’re
average at best and slightly below average at worst. However, even in the latter
case, the difference is small enough to ignore unless you reside in a local
with exorbitant energy costs, are going to tax the system heavily for lengthy
periods of time, and/or are fanatical about your carbon footprint. If you are,
then a low power X3 like the 415e may be right for you, but keep in mind it
comes with both a heavy price and performance penalty.

Our thanks to AMD
and for Athlon/Phenom II processor samples used in this review.

* * *

Articles of Related Interest
Athlon
II X4 610e & Phenom II X4 910e: 45W & 65W Quad Cores

AMD’s 890GX Chipset
Asus P7H55D-M EVO LGA1156 microATX Motherboard
Intel Core i5-661: A 32nm CPU with
Integrated Graphics

Athlon II X4 630 & 620: Affordable
Quad Cores

Intel’s LGA1156 and Lynnfield
core

* * *

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