AMD and Intel are relentless when it comes to diversifying their respective CPU portfolios across every possible corner of the processor market where someone might want to spend money. The good news is that these efforts give us lots of technology options across the entire price spectrum.
But buyers who don’t follow the daily cadence of processor development couldn’t possibly know whether Core i7 or Core 2 Quad is the newer product, or how these compare to AMD's own line of obscurely-named models. In some ways, it doesn’t matter which chips were launched most-recently. The more important consideration might be which processor offers the best total performance relative to its peers, and one of the best ways to judge this is with a shoot-out at a given clock rate.
The Issue with Variety
Ten years ago, it was really easy to stay up to date on the latest processor offerings and know what to buy. You had Intel's various product offerings at their different frequencies, and AMD's own counterparts. Today, the game is much more complex. Performance is no longer defined just by clock speed; core count and performance per clock are equally important. In addition, specifics such as cache capacities, as well as bus and memory speed, vary the parameters and hence complicate direct comparisons. Let’s not forget that it’s also important to take features such as virtualization technology and power efficiency into consideration. Intel, in particular, is guilty of selectively removing value-adds like VT-x from some models, while leaving it in others, without making the distinction clear.
Things were relatively easy when there were only three or four brand families to track. Pentium, Celeron, Athlon, Sempron--easy! Today, though, the chip families have expanded and sprouted multiple lines within each brand. It practically requires a CPU workshop to get familiar with all of the names, features, and platform specifics currently available (Ed.: I'm glad Patrick is bringing this up, too; it's a point I harped on in our Clarkdale coverage and bears repeating).
AMD still offers Semprons for the entry level. Turions and Athlons, available as X2s or Neos, are for mobile platforms. Athlon, Athlon II, Phenom, and Phenom II power desktop PCs, but I’ll skip the details at this point, because you need to look at various specifics, including core count, features, and clock speed to properly order all models according to your own priorities. Consider perusing AMD’s Find and Compare feature list of nearly 250 processors.
Intel doesn’t make it easier, as its portfolio is even larger. Celerons and Core 2 processors power notebooks (as do Mobile Core i7s, i5s, and i3s now). Atom is there, too, as a lowest-cost option for both desktops and portables. Core 2, Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 form the desktop CPU lineup, backed by Pentiums and Celerons at the low-end. Intel’s ARK (Automated Relational Knowledgebase) helps to investigate and compare the company’s processors.
Resetting the Game to 2.8 GHz
We decided to grab some of the latest quad-core mainstream and high-end processor offerings and do a toe-to-toe comparison. This time we didn’t look at market segment as defined by AMD and Intel. Instead, we selected a clock speed that all contenders can run at—2.8 GHz—and we performed benchmark runs at that speed.