AMD, you've had a good run, but Intel has now launched its line of Core 2 Duo desktop CPUs -- if you're buying a new computer or building one of your own, you'd be wise to see that it has one of these chips in it. The Core 2 Duo chips are not only the fastest desktop processors on the market, but they're also the most cost effective and among the most power efficient. AMD can no longer claim the desktop CPU crown.
While the $999 (£540) Extreme X6800 chip might be the fastest in the new lineup, we find the $530 (£287) 2.67GHz Core 2 Duo E6700 the most compelling for its price-performance ratio. For just about half the cost of AMD's flagship, the $1,031 (£558) Athlon 64 FX-62, the Core 2 Duo E6700 gives you a nearly identical, if not faster performance, depending on the application.
The Core 2 Duo represents a new era for Intel. It's the first desktop chip family that doesn't use the NetBurst architecture, which has been the template for every design since the Pentium 4. Instead, the Core 2 Duo uses what's called the Core architecture (not to be confused with Intel's Core Duo and Core Solo laptop chips, released last January). The advances in the Core architecture explain why even though the Core 2 Duo chips have lower clock speeds, they're faster than the older dual-core Pentium D 900 series chips. The Core 2 Extreme X6800 chip, the Core 2 Duo E6700 and the $316 Core 2 E6600, represent the top tier of Intel's new line, and in addition to the broader Core architecture similarities, they all have 4MB of unified L2 cache. Chips in the lower end of the Core 2 Duo line, composed of the $224 E6400 and the $183 E6300, have a 2MB unified L2 cache.
We won't belabour each point here -- for a detailed look at the new line, see the preview on our sister site, ZDNET.co.uk. The key is that it's not simply one feature that gives the Core 2 Duo chips their strength, but rather it's a host of design improvements across the chip and the way it transports data that improves performance. And our test results bear this out.
On our gaming, Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop tests, the E6700 was second only to the Extreme X6800 chip. Compared to the 2.6GHz Athlon 64 FX-62, the E6700 was a full 60fps faster on Half Life 2, it finished our Microsoft Office test 20 seconds ahead and it won on the Photoshop test by 39 seconds. On our iTunes and multitasking tests, the E6700 trailed the FX-62 by only 2 and 3 seconds, respectively. In other words, with the Core 2 Duo E6700 in your system, you'll play games more smoothly, get work done faster and in general enjoy a better computing experience than with the best from AMD -- and for less money.
But there's even more to the Core 2 Duo story than performance. One of the key elements of the new chips is their power efficiency. We base our findings on a number called the Thermal Design Power (TDP), which is the number that AMD and Intel each provide to system vendors and various PC hardware makers for determining how much power each chip will require, and thus the amount of heat they'll need to dissipate. In Intel's last generation of dual-core desktop chips, the Pentium D 900s, the TDP rating fell between 95W and 130W. But because the Core 2 Duo design incorporates power management techniques from Intel's laptop chips, its power requirements are much more forgiving. All but the Core 2 Extreme X6800 have a TDP of 65W, while the Extreme chip itself is only 75W.
For its own dual-core Athlon 64 X2 chips, AMD tells its hardware partners to prepare for a TDP of between 89W and 110W (although its Energy Efficient and Small Form Factor Althon 64 X2 products, which have yet to hit the market in any quantity, go to 65W and 35W, respectively). Intel has caught flak in the past for providing fan makers with inadequate TDP ratings, which resulted in overly noisy fans for the Pentium D chips that had to spin exceedingly fast to cool the chips properly. But the Falcon Northwest Mach V desktop, for example, came with stock cooling parts. It will be hard to tell exactly how well Intel's provided specs live up to their real-world requirements until the hardware has been disseminated widely, but the fact that a performance stickler like Falcon sent the standard-issue cooling hardware suggests that Intel took note of the problems it had in the past.
So what does all this really mean? It means that Core 2 Duo makes it easier for PC vendors to design smaller PCs that are just as powerful as their full-size counterparts because they don't have to deal with as much heat, nor provide massive power supplies and towering heat sinks. Such a PC should also run more quietly, since the cooler parts don't need as much work from the system fans. It also means less thermal wear and tear. As parts run hotter, the likelihood of their failure increases. The lower the TDP, the happier the PC and its surrounding components.
And as to the surrounding parts, if you already have an Intel-based PC and would like to upgrade, Intel has made it easy. The Core 2 Duo chips use the same Socket LGA775 interface as the Pentium D 900 series. If you have an Intel motherboard using a 965 chipset, you're ready to go with Core 2 Duo and a single graphics card. If you want to run Intel and a dual graphics configuration, you have two options -- Intel's 975 chipsets support ATI's CrossFire technology only, and if you want to run SLI, you'll need a motherboard in Nvidia's NForce 500 for Intel series.
For AMD, the outlook isn't great. Its so-called 4x4 design, which will let you run two Athlon 64 FX-62s in a single PC, might overtake a single Core 2 Extreme X6800 on raw performance. Details are scant about 4x4's particulars, but if a single Athlon 64 FX-62 costs about $1,031, two will have you crossing the $2,000 mark on chips alone, not to mention the motherboard, the size of the case, as well as the cooling hardware required to operate it. AMD says it will drop prices this month to compete on the price-performance ratio. That might make for some compelling desktop deals, but for now, Intel has the superior technology.
Additional editing by Kate Macefield