The final Phenom II, the X4-980 Black Edition hardly leaves the tech community with sweet memories of its processor family as it gets handily beat by Intel's closest comparable Sandy Bridge chip.  (Source: Anandtech)

Intel's closest-priced Sandy Bridge chip is cheaper, faster, and uses much less power than AMD's latest design.  (Source: Intel via Newegg)
Clocked at 3.7 GHz, the quad-core Phenom II X4 980 gets beat in performance and price by lower-clocked Intel chips

Even as Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) finally starts to look competitive with its low-end Fusion CPU+GPU systems-on-chips (SOCs), it still has no real answer in the high performance end.

This week it released what will likely be the final member of the Phenom II family (45 nm), the high-end counterpart to AMD's budget Athlon II line.  Both lines will begin a slow phase-out by June, being replaced with the chips bearing AMD's new architecture -- Bulldozer (32 nm).  

The new chip is dubbed the AMD Phenom II X4-980 Black Edition.

I. Performance

The final Phenom II has what it takes to be a decent performer -- if it were launched, say, two or three years ago.  

Its four cores are clocked at 3.7 GHz, though the memory controller, HyperTransport controller, and L3 cache run at just 2 GHz, without any type of special overclocking.  The chip fits neatly into AM3 socket boards and will be compatible with future AM3+ boards.

Performance-wise, the chip gets beat in numeric benchmarks (e.g. SiSoft Sandra 2011b) by its more expensive AMD hexacore brethren, the X6-1090T and X6-1100T.

It also gets blown away by Intel Corp.'s (INTC) lowest end Nehalem (45 nm) i7 processor, the Core i7-860.  Let that sink in for a minute -- Intel's slowest quad-core i7 processor, released in September 2009, can still beat AMD's fastest quad-core processor, released in May 2011.  

(To be fair, the i7-860 debuted at a higher price of $279, though its price later dropped substantially to near the X4-980's mark as Intel cleared inventory to prepare for Sandy Bridge.)

PC Perspective measured the X4-980 as being about 25 frames-per-second slower than the i7-860 in Far Cry 2 at high-resolution settings and 10 fps slower at "ultra" settings.

Looking at its closest modern Intel competitor, the i5-2400 (more on that later), the X4-980 is yet again left badly beaten, both in synthetic benchmarks and in games.  The i5-2400 (3.1 GHz standard, 3.7 GHz "Turbo Mode") -- a Sandy Bridge (32 nm) chip -- is anywhere from 15-20 fps ahead in numerous game titles, according to benchmarks by AnandTech.

But the bad news for the new processor performance-wise doesn't end there.  Under load it is estimated to consume around 164.6 watts, near 50 watts more than slim 115.2 watts the i5-2400 draws.

Its one saving grace performance-wise is that it proves a decent chip to overclock, being capable of being bumped to 4.3 GHz, without water-cooling, if you're careful.

II. Price

Both the i7-860 and the X4-980 have a bit of a common problem -- they're overqualified for most consumer workloads -- even casual gaming.  So while the Intel chip spanks the AMD chip in performance, the real question for most of its target audience boils down to the price.

The chip is expected to debut somewhere around $195 USD.  That price makes the situation a bit complicated, as AMD's own X6-1090T is only $5 more, at $200 USD and beats it in multi-thread optimized workloads (though in many casual games the X4-980) will come out ahead.

As the old core models aren't currently widely available, having been phased out by Sandy Bridge, its clearest competition in the Intel department is the quad-core i5-2400, which retails for $190 USD.

So to summarize, Intel's main competitor, the i5-2400 not only badly burns the newest member of the Phenom II in performance and power consumption, it also leaves $5 USD more in your wallet.

Of course, if you already have an AM3 board and aren't willing to upgrade, the price situation may shift in the new chip's favor -- though you still have to factor in the much slower performance.  Anand Lal Shimpi sums it up nicely, writing:

There's not a whole lot to say here about the Phenom II X4 980. AMD originally introduced the Phenom II architecture over two years ago to compete with Intel's Core 2 lineup. Intel has since been through one major microarchitecture revision (Sandy Bridge) and Phenom II is beginning to show its age. AMD is most competitive at the edges of its lineup. The Phenom II X6 offers a ton of cores at a budget if you have a workload that can use them, and the Athlon II at the low end is still quite desirable. Unless you're an existing Socket-AM3 motherboard owner a high end Phenom II X4 just isn't attractive. 

The Tech Report was even more blunt, with Scott Wasson writing:

All of which leaves us wondering what, exactly, is the point of this little product refresh. Yes, AMD's top quad-core product is a tiny little bit improved over the prior model, but even in the small picture, nothing much has changed at all.

AMD will hope to wash that bad taste out of consumers mouths with a final release of Athlon II chip(s) at the low end soon, which (hopefully) will be more competitively priced.  And for those who hope the best for AMD -- or at least hope for a competitive CPU market -- you can always look forward hopefully to the release of Bulldozer later this year, which could offer a legitimate competitor to Sandy Bridge at the high end, if AMD can compete price-wise.

"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007

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