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Thursday 31 August 2006

Core 2 Duo - holy cow! [Lurks]

I haven't been this impressed with a technology generation for some time and Intel's Core 2 Duo processor is so damn good, it has ramifications for all of us because you are going to want to upgrade. First a bit of a backgrounder; following the Intel Pentium III processor, they needed a new architecture because the existing one was running out of steam at higher clock rates. I can only assume Intel had a range of possible directions to take but ultimately they settled on Netburst, the architecture that ended up in the Pentium 4.
Choosing Netburst, I believe, was motivated by marketing. People didn't really understand the crazy performance vs megahertz ratings that were in the market place. Netburst meant big MHz ratings, bigger than what AMD could hope to achieve, so they went with that. Of course the processor was a LOT slower for a given MHz than the competition and even the previous Pentium III but they still thought it was a good idea. Let's be clear, nothing about Pentium 4s were good and they were particularly absurd when you examined the dual-core varieties which was dramatically slower than AMD Athlon X2s, hotter and more expensive.
Meanwhile, in Israel, a seperate Intel unit worked on mobile processors. With power to performance as a primary consideration, they settled on a revised Pentium III architecture which became known as the Pentium-m. I've blogged about this 18 months ago when I upgraded my lounge server 'Wench' to a 2.0GHz Pentium-m Dothan processor using a kooky specialist desktop board. Pentium-m was, basically, faster than Pentium 4 and managed to do it while using a fraction as much power. In fact Pentium-m was so good, it gave the highest end desktop processors a run for their money. Take a look at Digit Life's views at the time.
Intel's fortunes as a result of this internal politics fiasco that left them without a decent desktop processor, fell somewhat. To the point where the CEO issued a company wide memo saying that it was time to get the house in order. That was the first clue we had that Intel were going to get things back on track. What they delivered was a processor technology called Conroe. I work for a computer manufacturer and the chaps in R&D playing with these samples couldn't shut up about the sort of performance they were getting and then shortly thereafter, the press were saying it too.
Let's cut to the chase. Core 2 Duo is incredible. It's not just a little bit faster than AMD, it absolutely positively wipes the floor with AMD. I intend to do blog on creation of an ultimate games PC with Core 2 Duo later on but that's going to have to wait for the availability of the NVIDIA nForce 590 chipset motherboards to come out. First, however, I needed a little hands on. Wench, my lounge server, doesn't have enough grunt to playback H264 encoded HD video. The processing power this needs should be self evident if it can't play back smoothly in busy scenes on a no-slouch Pentium-m 2.0GHz processor.
Still, some crazy processor would be overkill for a lounge server so I went with the cheapest Core 2 Duo available. The E6300 which is clocked at a miserly 1.86GHz. This is a 266MHz quad pumped FSB (1066MHz actual) by 7 multiplier. It can be had for about £120 with a retail heatsink fan which sits somewhere between the cost of an AMD Athlon X2 3800+ and a 4200+.
First stop, let's just take a quick look to see how it compares in SiSoft Sandra's Arithmetic benchmarks versus my old Pentium-m.

Ah, quite alot faster then. Let's drop a caveat in though, this is a dual core processor. The benchmark you're seeing here is a multi-threaded benchmark so the E6300 is cheating by having two cores but that's kind of valid don't you think? Bare in mind that a Pentium-M of exactly the same clock speed, the Pentium M 750, costs £160 and is slower than the one shown.
See here's the thing though, Core 2 Duo isn't even stretching Intel's fab technology right now. Enthusiasts around the world are buying these things and overclocking the hell out of them. Anand has a great guide. Let's cut to the chase though, here's that £120 processor, overclocked on the standard reference cooler thrashing the AMD FX-62 in games and that's a processor which costs around £550. To do that Anand overclocked a humble E6300 to 2.592Ghz up from 1.86Ghz stock. That's a pretty nice overclock but in the end 186fps in Half-Life 2: Episode One versus 171fps from the AMD is really quite amazing.
So, anyway, I upgraded Wench with a brand spanking Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 motherboard and it all went without a hitch, booting into Windows right away. Then I went into the BIOS and raised the FSB from 266MHz to 357MHz. Set the FSB to DRAM ratio to 4:5. That gives a CPU clock speed of 2499MHz on an FSB running at 1.4GHz and a DRAM clock speed of 446MHz. PC6400 DDR2 memory running at PC7136 speed if you prefer to look at things like that. Fast, anyway. All on the stock air cooler which simply pushes on to the board, no faffing about. It booted, it's been running all day and night without a hitch. No CPU voltage hikes necessary, nothing. 2.5GHz out of an E6300. That's just a shade short of the speed Anand did in the above feature so you could expect benchmarks around that mark. Wench basically now has a processor faster than an FX-62. Bloody hell.

Needless to say it plays H264 HD video without hitch now :-) I also threw a cheap PCI-E GeForce 6300GT graphics card in the box to replace the previous GeForce 2 MX400 peice of crap and I just had to fire up World of Warcraft on my projector. Bah, I'd play from my couch, kicking back to a 9-foot screen if it wasn't for the fact I need a Logitech G15 keyboard for all my keys :-)
And here's running the SiSoft Sandra Multimedia benchmark running at 2.5Ghz and comparing it to a Pentium 4 Extreme Edition 840 and an AMD Athlon X2 4800+ among others:

I was expecting to need to buy a more expensive processor when going back to revisit the upgrade boogy with my gaming desktop but now I'm really not so sure. This little processor is basically running just a little shy of a top-end E6700 processor which is about £386 worth of processor. For an uber gaming rig I'd probably buy the E6400 processor for around £163 and then clock the thing within a fanny hair of Core 2 Extreme, a £771 processor.
Bottom line here, Intel done good. It's hard seeing how AMD are going to bounce back from this one any time soon.


  1. Damn, wrote a big post and lost it with some security code lameness. Great post Lurks, makes me want to upgrade my fairly new AMD Alienware, which I really shouldn't be thinking about! Hrm, £200 for a cpu and mobo you reckon? Is that all I need? Getting pissed off with the AMD setup already, lots of stuff doesn't run right on it, i.e. Adobe pro software.
    Might save the upgrade for a Core 2 Duo laptop though, then I can play better games at the next AMLan :)

  2. So which Core 2 Duo is faster than an Athlon XP 4000+ at stock speeds?
    I feel like jumping ship again to Intel. I've never had a problem with Intel systems I've built and always had various funnies with AMD systems, current one included. Bah.
    And what's a good/quiet core 2 duo cooler?

  3. Which Core 2 Duo is faster than an Athlon XP 4000+ at stock speeds? Golly mate, the cheapest E6300 is. Take a gander. Course where it gets interesting is because you can clock an E6300 at 2.5Ghz on the standard air cooler without doing a thing. Then it's faster than an FX-62 for pete sake. As for a better cooler, I'm not really sure. I'm using the stock Intel one which is actually surprisingly not shit. It's not whisper whisper quiet like but it's pretty good. Reckon you'll get more noise off your graphics card.