Do you want to buy a graphics card? Good luck sorting through all of the four-digit model numbers, the Pros, GSes, GTs, GTSes, and GTXes. Almost feels like a performance car lot. Ready for a RAM upgrade? Oh dear. You mean there’s just as much granularity in that market as well, separated by $10 price divisions? At least processors are fairly cut and dry.
Well, at least they used to be. Now performance enthusiasts have to weigh clock speed and cores against budgets. Fortunately, single core chips join Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan as B-list accessories, leaving you with a choice between dual- and quad-core CPUs. But which to choose? We’ve been promised over and over that there’s software just over the horizon able to show off what four cores can do. At least as far as games are concerned, however, faster frequencies show better than multiplied resources. Then there’s the multi-tasked usage model. Advocates of parallelism argue that quad-core CPUs give you that
much more horsepower to run several screens full of apps. Sounds good in theory, but the claim is much more difficult to quantify.
Whatever is the torn gamer with expenses to do? AMD thinks its triple-core Phenom X3 is the answer. Or, at least an
answer. The X3s are cut from the same silicon wafer as the Phenom X4. Rather than shipping with all four cores active, however, AMD shuts one of them off at the factory. The result is a slightly awkward three-core configuration priced right between AMD’s dual- and quad-core offerings—perfect, the company says, for folks looking to take a mainstream platform and perhaps mix in an inexpensive gaming card. It also makes a nice alternative to Intel’s comparably-priced dual-core chips, which might not be as nimble when you start piling on the processes.
Of course, the X3s also take the processor market one step closer to looking like the incredibly diverse graphics landscape. We’re naturally glad to have plenty of choices, but at what point does copious selection turn into an overwhelming, overlapping shotgun-blast of speeds, cores, caches, and price tags?
The short of it is that we’re close. In fact, it’s a darn good thing you can’t do half-cores, though we certainly hope the marketing minds at AMD don’t start thinking about cutting their caches in half to create another 10 models.
But it appears that the struggling CPU vendor has indeed found a stretch of the pricing spectrum currently underserved by its multi-core offerings. You see, the quad-core Phenom X4 chips range from $209 to $235 (we’re ignoring the $251 X4 9600 because, quite frankly, you shouldn’t buy it in the face of faster 50-series chips available for less money). The dual-core X2s range from $68 to $178—seemingly right up to where the Phenoms pick up. Remember, though, that the X2s aren’t based on the K10 platform so they don’t benefit from faster HyperTransport settings, a shared L3 cache, or the dual power planes.
Thus, the Phenom X3 family gives you a handful of options centering on the most current architecture. It effectively trades clock speed for parallelism when compared to the X2s, and parallelism for price versus the X4s. Should you be factoring all of those trade-offs into your next processor purchase, though? We’re wondering the same thing.