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Phenom II 955 Versus Core i7 920: Gaming Value Compared

Phenom II 955 Versus Core i7 920: Gaming Value Compared
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We recently published a review of Cyberpower's Gamer Dragon, a Phenom II 955-based gaming PC equipped with DDR3 RAM and a pair of Radeon HD 4890s in CrossFire. The Cyberpower Gamer Dragon was delivered to us with a nice 3.6 GHz overclock, and when we considered what we should compare this system to, our first thought was our recent $1,300 System Builder Marathon (SBM) machine. With an Intel Core i7-920 and two GeForce GTX 260s in SLI, the cost of the components for the two builds was similar.

The comparison also addressed one of the primary complaints we received when we chose the i7 over the Phenom II for our SBM build: that the Phenom II would have been a better choice for a gaming rig, because its lower price tag would have enabled us to add better graphics cards with the budget available. Since the graphics subsystem is often the limiting factor for game performance, a cheaper AMD processor coupled with a higher-powered graphics card would have offered a better fit for gaming, according to the reader feedback.

On paper, two Radeon HD 4890s best a pair of GeForce GTX 260s, so I was satisfied that the scenario would make for a great comparison of Phenom II versus Core i7 gaming value. I merrily proceeded to take benchmarks, record the findings, and form conclusions based on the data. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to investigate the matter, and after all was said and done, my conclusion was that the Core i7-920 beat the Phenom II by a fairly substantial margin. When a budget allows for a powerful dual-graphics card setup, the Core i7 appeared to be the ideal choice, while the Phenom II was a better pick for machines in a lower price range, which the Core i7 can't touch. 

Well, the Cyberpower Gamer Dragon article probably generated more forum feedback than any other piece I've written. Normally this would be a good thing, but this time my testing and subsequent conclusion left a lot of people upset. According to a number of folks, there were three main sins I committed in my review of the Phenom II machine:

1. Different Graphics Card Manufacturers

This ties in directly with concern number two below. As both of the test systems used different brands of graphics cards (one sporting Radeon GPUs and the other with GeForce GPUs), the results depended on games that demonstrated a performance preference for one of these architectures.

2. Selection of Game Benchmarks

We use four game benchmarks in our SBM series, which we selected using a number of factors, including popularity, significance, and variety. Those games are Crysis, Far Cry 2, World in Conflict, and Stalker: Clear Sky. Keep in mind, games are only a small part of the PC performance that we test in our SBMs, so up until this point we haven't noticed any problems with this selection of titles.

However, as mentioned, we pit Radeons against GeForces, opening ourselves up to any preference a specific game title might have for either architecture. It has also been suggested that our game selections are overly CPU-dependent, thus giving the Core i7 an edge.

3. The Cyberpower Gamer Dragon May Not Represent Ideal Phenom II Performance

It has also been suggested that our Cyberpower Gamer Dragon test sample wasn't working up to snuff. Concerns have been raised that the memory performance results as tested by the SiSoft Sandra benchmark were lower than they should have been. The Gamer Dragon also uses the Gigabyte GA-MA790XT-U4DP motherboard, which is equipped with AMD's 790X chipset limited to one x16 and one x8 PCI Express (PCIe) 2.0 slot. The AMD 790FX would better represent ideal Phenom II performance, as it has two full PCIe x16 slots--one for each of the graphics cards in CrossFire.

I do believe these three points cover most people's concerns with the Cyberpower article, and since these issues deserve to be investigated further, we came up with a more even-handed plan to use in this follow-up review. Instead of looking at the Cyberpower Gamer Dragon, we'll concentrate specifically on Intel Core i7 versus AMD Phenom II gaming value using our own builds.

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  • 0 Hide
    mi1ez , 13 July 2009 17:10
    Nice follow up article.
  • 0 Hide
    revos , 13 July 2009 20:37
    Great article!!!! a question or 2 if you dont mind.. would a single 4890X2 card not be cheaper and deliver beter performance and then allow for a cheaper mb ? my big question is how much could I by going the AMD route ? As I could see from the tests you spent the same money but i7 still out performed the AMD so what is the use?
  • 0 Hide
    revos , 13 July 2009 20:39
    How much could I save ... lol sorry type o
  • 0 Hide
    baracubra , 13 July 2009 23:23
    Great review!! This answers a lot of questions...Its really interesting though to see that the i7 delivers better results even with lower clock speeds at the same cost...
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , 14 July 2009 03:21
    Please don't use crossfire/sli on benchmarks. Noone serious with computing uses those power inefficient super heat solutions. The real world situation is a single strong card, and previous benchmarks shows that Phenom II is better there.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , 14 July 2009 03:21
    I7 sucks, to expensive....
  • 2 Hide
    wild9 , 14 July 2009 04:28
    I think it would have been nice to see some GTA IV results.
  • 0 Hide
    wild9 , 14 July 2009 05:02
    Intel may have the crown in the raw performance stakes..but look at the upgrade options.

    With an AMD rig you may have the option to simply whip out the Athlon64 x2, and install a Phenom II. With an Intel rig you'll have to replace both the board and the memory in order to go the i7 route..that's gonna be one costly upgrade. Plus, there are scenario's where AMD still shines, as the article on 64-bit studio recording shows, and the spotlight on how popular AMD hardware is in the field of super-computing.

    Still, fair do's to Intel though for producing this product, even if the future is going to be more GPU rather CPU, orientated. I can't really fault either platform in terms of performance and stability, as well as overclocking..it's just that most of my clients would still go the AMD route due to the platform's longevity and it's resulting upgrade potential.
  • 0 Hide
    redkachina , 14 July 2009 08:41
    I'm torn apart to choose between these 2 systems (for my next build)..It would be nice if there's AMD mobo that can do both SLI & CF.. If the price difference is just 50-100$ I'd go for Intel..
  • 3 Hide
    LePhuronn , 14 July 2009 08:54
    AkuraRPlease don't use crossfire/sli on benchmarks. Noone serious with computing uses those power inefficient super heat solutions. The real world situation is a single strong card, and previous benchmarks shows that Phenom II is better there.


    According to who? You? SLI/CF is a perfectly commonplace practice, especially when new generation of GPUs comes out and knocks the prices of your current card right the way down. I know plenty of people who use SLI and make serious use of the CUDA aspects too.

    naineI7 sucks, to expensive....

    Dear child, the cost of the i7 makes it somewhat unobtainable to budget builders. Price does not detract from the fact the i7 chip is a fantastic piece of silicon.

  • -4 Hide
    Anonymous , 15 July 2009 11:35
    Just an after thought, a CPU is a CPU it is not that AMD cannot do certain things that Intel can do, it will just do it slower. However a GPU is not a GPU. If you have been keeping up with the latest in computational applications, the GPU of choice will be NVIDIA. Why? Because of CUDA and DirectX Compute. These technologies have been adapted to certain applications to speed up functionality by 10x to 200x. So I will choose AMD for the CPU but will go with NVIDIA for the GPU.
  • 0 Hide
    ukctstrider , 15 July 2009 17:47
    I'm glad you added the last paragraph because to me this sums up the choice nicely.
    If you have money to throw at a system then i7 is very clearly the way forward. However personally I think if you have any budgetary constraints at all then Phenom II is the way to go for the following reasons:

    Comparing a low end i7 and a high end Phenom is not like for like in terms of value for money. Mid to low end almost always provides the best value compared to a high end product and at present there isn't sufficient overlap between i7 and Phenom for them to be remotely comparable.
    In gaming terms although the i7 is ahead it's not ahead in a relavent manner. The Phenom gives playable rates across the board and the additional frames provided by the i7 are unlikely to be noticeable.
    The i7 platform is significantly less likely to be upgradable in the future, the AM3 platform is likely to be around for a few years to come.
    Personally I don't overclock straight out of the box and the differences in stock performance aren't that great. I only generally overclock to get a little extra out of my chips as they near their lifespan and they are easy and cheap to replace if anything goes wrong.
    In the "other applications" comment you are right to say that the i7 is significantly faster, however in your benchmarks it's not significant enough for me to think it's worth the extra money. I classify tasks as, near enough instant (in the order of 30 seconds), long enough to go and make a cup of tea (two to five minutes), leave whilst I do something else (ten minutes and over). The i7 doesn't give enough of a performance upgrade in your benchmarks to move any tasks from one class to another and so the performance increase is meaningless in a real world usage.

    At the end of the day (it gets dark...) I don't see how the ridiculous prices of the i7s can be thought worth it for a home/gamer application beyond "appendige" length comparisons with friends. IF (big if) you are looking to create a rig for a very specific purpose which is work and therefore performance related such as media editing and the like then the i7 clearly makes sense then as you'll receive the additional expenditure back as increased productivity. I can't see any other reason to chose the i7.
  • 0 Hide
    ukctstrider , 15 July 2009 17:48
    Oh and as a peace offering I'm giving LePhuronn a + as his points are excellent :) 
  • -1 Hide
    AMD4Life , 15 July 2009 21:33
    This is extremely fishy. First 2 260's take the lead over 2 4890's, now it is close. Did Tom's realize that their recent CyberPower review didn't fool anybody? I hope so, but even this isn't changing the fact that the numbers are altered to favor Intel many times.
  • 0 Hide
    euphoria , 16 July 2009 01:03
    AMD4LifeThis is extremely fishy. First 2 260's take the lead over 2 4890's, now it is close. Did Tom's realize that their recent CyberPower review didn't fool anybody? I hope so, but even this isn't changing the fact that the numbers are altered to favor Intel many times.

    I really doubt Tom's alter results and the reason the 260's won was because of the games chosen. if you've read this article (Have you just seen the word AMD and decided to bring in the same tired arguments of favouritism) you'd realise that they've admitted their mistakes, which I commend them for.

    I support AMD and it brings a smile to my face to see all these comments supporting them, but people need to understand that the 955 doesn't really compete with the 920, although they both deliver, what I believe to be, enough gaming performance that most people will be unable to tell the difference between most of the time.

    I agree with the author about AMD shining in lower budgets and they really are the best option here, competing and beating Core 2's. However what I feel should have been mentioned also was that AMDs are currently much easier to upgrade because of the backwards compatibility between their sockets and because Intel run so many different sockets at once. This makes me think that if you have a high budget and rebuild frequently, or don't plan to upgrade then the i7 is the better choice, but if you can't afford to, or don't want to rebuild frequently and would rather upgrade or, like it said in the article, are on a lower budget then AMD is likely to be a better choice for you.

    Ironically I'd say that this article is slightly biased towards AMD, because with two identical systems, except one is built to be portable system, and the other a full size system, than the full size system will be better. On the other hand the games are mostly CPU limited, which would, of course, favour the i7. But they are some of the most popular games currently, and this article is really written to show the real world difference in gaming systems of the same budget, not to compare the processors alone.
  • 0 Hide
    Touche36 , 16 July 2009 03:45
    How about a test with CPU heavy games such as FSX or ARMA II ?
  • -1 Hide
    Anonymous , 16 July 2009 14:27
    Who is to say that the x58 platform will not be around for a while. The 775 socket survived quite a few years and is still used in the moderate high end so to assume that Intel in general is hard to upgrade I think is rubbish. In games I notice reasonable advantage when adding pre-rendered frames into the mix so the more power CPU certainly makes a difference. There is real world results that are hard to deny as well such as transcoding performance which is far better on the i7 than any AMD platform. The difference is real, when things that took over night only take an hours or two, that is substantial.
  • 0 Hide
    euphoria , 16 July 2009 18:15
    pianoman6954Who is to say that the x58 platform will not be around for a while. The 775 socket survived quite a few years and is still used in the moderate high end so to assume that Intel in general is hard to upgrade I think is rubbish. In games I notice reasonable advantage when adding pre-rendered frames into the mix so the more power CPU certainly makes a difference. There is real world results that are hard to deny as well such as transcoding performance which is far better on the i7 than any AMD platform. The difference is real, when things that took over night only take an hours or two, that is substantial.


    Sorry I didn't really phrase myself properly. What I meant was that there is unlikely to be another 1366 processor in the 920's budget range because the i5's are coming out and I personally think it's unlikely that there'll be significant overlap between the 1156's and 1366's, with high-mid end processors falling on i5 side of the fence.

    All this isn't such a problem if you're buying a 1366 processor now, but if you buy a processor using the 1156 socket and then decide later on that you'd like a much better processor with maybe 6 or 8 cores, you'd have to buy a whole new motherboard.

    Also sorry if it's difficult to understand when I use the names of the sockets, but I seem to remember reading that i5's or i7's were going to overlap into the other's sockets. I can't remember which way round though.
  • 1 Hide
    enterco , 16 July 2009 21:26
    pianoman6954Who is to say that the x58 platform will not be around for a while. The 775 socket survived quite a few years and is still used in the moderate high end so to assume that Intel in general is hard to upgrade I think is rubbish.

    I think you missed some of the Intel's specs pages. Intel doesn't want you to reuse an old platform, but buy a new one. If you want to make a real CPU upgrade on LGA775 like upgrading from E6300 to E7300, you will probably need to upgrade the motherboard too. Here's the proof: you can't use Pentium D or later on 915P, can't use Core2 or later on 945P, can't use E7300 @ 45 nm on P965.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , 17 July 2009 00:40
    Actually, you can put a pentium D on 915P, use Core2 or later on 945P, and use E7300 @ 45 nm on P965. There are still socket 478 mbs out there, that are new, with newer chipsets which support pci-e. All the s478 and 775 cpus are basically the same. Just a different cpu mounting spot. the biggest difference is the vrm thing. The newer cpus need newer version of the vrm, which is a hardware design. In some way, you can say Intel update it so that you cannot put a new cpu into an older board. But as soon as mb makers update their pcb with new version of vrm, you can put a new cpu with older chipset. And if you study your link better, the intel website only shows the current motherboard, not the old ones (check ASUS website again).

    But with newer technologies coming out (more sata ports, pci-e 2.0, ddr3, etc), you really think that upgrading just a cpu will give that much of a kick (of course we are talking about upgrading from 2 to 3/4 cores with the same speed, not the el cheapo cpu to the most expensive cpu you can buy)?

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