There you have it – the last hurrah? Let’s hope not, because if one thing is for sure, it’s that AMD is back to being competitive with Intel. And in many ways, they are the better choice, at least for now.
What we saw in this review were the results of AMD not being competitive at all for quite a while. Although Intel continues to push the envelope with their CPUs (they didn’t HAVE to release Ivy Bridge, and only did so to continue their “Tick Tock” cadence of platform releases), prices have remained stagnant over the last few years. Since AMD had yet to offer compelling solutions in any price range, prices remained high.
Today, AMD struck back at Intel in the price range that matters – under $250 – and beat them in almost every aspect. Each AMD Piledriver FX processor exceeds its price targeted Intel competition in almost all aspects of performance, especially for the price. The only ‘wins’ we saw for the Intel chips were sometimes smoother performance in gaming (this was pretty close for the most part, with the exception of Skyrim) and of course power consumption.
Power consumption can be a big one though. When I set up a Bulldozer CPU for testing for the first time in a while, I was instantly reminded what an absolute power hog that thing was. Even at stock speeds, it was extremely hot, which leads to an extremely noisy system. And this was on an open bench; inside a case, the Bulldozer would cook up everything around it, leading to yet more heat, and perhaps even durability issues in the long run.
Piledriver was completely different though. Using the same Phanteks cooler for each CPU in this review allowed me to have the realization that whether using a 125W Piledriver FX or a 55W Core i3, heat and noise were relatively the same. Although power consumption remains quite high under full load on Piledriver FX, heat production was kept in check.
Another story is at the $150 price range, where Intel never bothered to offer anything higher than a Core i3 3240. Intel has stripped the Core i3 of many of Ivy Bridge’s features, and it shows in real world performance. It has a puny L3 cache, no L2 cache, no AES, no turbo speeds, no overclocking… If you were thinking of putting together a gaming system in the $600 range, your choices just got really compelling. Before today, your choices would have been between an i5 3450 for $200 or an i3 3240 for $150. Now you can safely spend $150 (or less) on an FX-6300, and put that extra $50 towards a better video card.
Then you must consider overclocking and undervolting. Our experience with overclocking Piledriver FX was much better than Bulldozer. The key to this architecture seems to be to keep temperatures as low as possible – under the 70 Celsius range for sure, but preferably under 60. With Bulldozer that was tough, because as soon as you added a touch of voltage, it would heat up like crazy.
Because Piledriver’s heat is kept in check, it is much easier to increase clock speeds and a bit of voltage. We were able to run it at 4.9 GHz with the AMD FX Liquid Cooler, with just 0.1v added to it. 5.0 GHz seems like an attainable target with a better motherboard. On air, we had it up to 4.6 GHz.
Going the other way, you could undervolt Piledriver FX to keep power consumption even further in check.
I will say one thing – system builds using Piledriver FX should take into consideration the higher power consumption of the chip when choosing a motherboard. Even running at stock speeds, the chip needs a lot of juice under full loads. If you were to use a cheaper motherboard with poorly designed voltage regulation circuitry, you may run into issues with durability down the road. I would recommend a board with at least an 8-phase CPU VRM, and more if you are going for 4.9 GHz and above. The Gigabyte 990FXA-UD3 used for this review has an 8+2 phase VRM that can deliver up to 400A to the CPU VCore, and the transistors get quite hot under load. I also believe it held us back from reaching our 5.0 GHz goal in overclocking. For stock and on-air overclocking though, a board like this is perfect. Especially for the reasonable price. Stay away from motherboards with weaker VRMs.
AMD sought out to accomplish two things with Piledriver FX. They wanted to improve performance over Bulldozer, and were able to. Depending on the task, we saw performance improvements between 10-16% (usually on the higher end of that scale). Secondly, they wanted to keep heat production in check. They accomplished this as well, and temperatures are completely manageable while Bulldozer was not.
This combination has allowed them to aggressively target specific Intel models, and they outperform each one. This may bode well for the future of AMD, but at the very least, should cause Intel to wake up and update their prices once in a while from now on.