Iíve been writing about technology for 10 years now, and as a member of the press, I find that itís incredibly difficult to always ďkeep your mind rightĒ when it comes to passing judgment over the hardware that people buy. Anyone who does this job and says otherwise is lying.
Showdowns between AMD and Intel are especially difficult to officiate because the two companies are continually adjusting their price tags according to relative performance. I can tell you that Intelís fastest chip will smoke AMDís best effort, but the $800 discrepancy is a big enough turn-off to keep enthusiasts from automatically jumping on Intelís flagship. However, once you start comparing one companyís $250 quad-core chip against the otherís, decisions get a lot trickier. After all, in a bid to make some money and still remain competitive, both organizations are going to give you a very similar experience.
But at the end of the day, youíre still faced with a choice. Your system is getting old. The latest games just donít look the way you know they should. So you want to build a new machine with the best processor, platform, memory, and graphics subsystems your money can buy. Make the call: AMD or Intel?
Up until now, at that $250 price point, I would have steered friends, family, and readers toward the Intel solution. Iím a big advocate of the platform, and when I can put an Intel processor on a motherboard with an Intel chipset, things just seem to work. The 45m quad-core Yorkfields and dual-core Wolfdales are started to appear, and theyíre shaping up to be highly scalable chips. Not helping the situation is AMDís limited quad-core lineup. Based on a B2 stepping sullied by an errata that, when patched, absolutely hammers performance, the Phenom wasnít altogether attractive.
You can tell it's a B3 by simply looking at the OPN code
AMDís counter-point is that todayís Phenom is a drop-in upgrade for the folks out there already on AM2 motherboards. In addition, the least expensive Phenom costs less than the least expensive Core 2 Quad. So, if youíre on a strict budget or simply upgrading an older machine, Phenom makes sense. If thatís the case, youíre probably not all that concerned with how AMDís quad-core solution stacks up to Intelís competing chips anyway.
Of course, AMD has the platform story on its side now. In fact, its 790FX chipset is one of the most feature-complete enthusiast foundations selling today. What the company needs is a hardware fix for its cache issue and more megahertz. And thatís exactly what the B3 stepping brings to AMDís Phenom.
We laid it out in our last Phenom story and Iíll reiterate here: though youíll find plenty of editorial content online explaining what the TLB erratum is and how itís triggered, thereís a good chance youíd never encounter it if you bought a Phenom that centered on AMDís B2 stepping. With that said, the prospect of data corruption is real enough that most motherboard vendors have issued BIOS updates with a selectable workaround. The patch greatly increases memory latency and significantly impacts Phenomís performance.
Stepping B3 takes a different approach to the problem, which doesnít affect performance, and the erratum is sidestepped entirely.
Representatives at AMD insist that the purpose of B3 is to fix the cache bug, so donít go assuming it was also trying to boost Phenomís scalability this time around. The company emphatically insists that what you see is what you get when it comes to overclocking the quad-core processor. And more importantly, you still void your warranty. Considering the apparent scalability of Intelís dual-core Wolfdale chips (we took our 3.16 GHz sample past 4 GHz), weíre really hoping that AMD can build some more headroom into the architecture.
Overclocking is neither here nor there, though. We asked for a TLB fix and more clock speed. B3 delivers on that first wish.