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AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition

Date: May 29, 2009
Author(s): Rob Williams

For each component that can go into a PC, there are usually countless models to choose from, and the CPU scheme of things is no different. For those looking to spend around $250, the options are AMD’s Phenom II X4 955 and Intel’s Core 2 Quad Q9550. AMD is confident that their product delivers a better value, so let’s check to see if that’s the case.



Introduction

When AMD launched their long-awaited AM3-based processors last month, the X3 720 and X4 810, one thing was lacking… a high-end Quad-Core part. On the AM2+ side, we’ve had the X4 940 since Phenom II’s release, so what about AM3? Well, enthusiasts had to wait a little bit longer for that one, but late last month, the company released the X4 955 Black Edition, which became the fastest Phenom processor to date.

What happens to the X4 940, then? At this point, nothing, but there’s little doubt that it will be wiped off the roadmap eventually, especially as DDR3 modules have become more affordable than ever. AMD also released a new budget part last month, the Athlon X2 7850. This Dual-Core chip clocks in at 2.8GHz, and at ~$70, it’s a great value.

If you’re wondering what took us so long to get this 955 article up, you’re not alone. And while it’s not a valid excuse, I lost track of it while working on other things, so apologies for the late posting. As the 955 is still AMD’s flagship processor though, a late review is still entirely relevant (*phew*).

Before we jump into a look at the processor, one important thing to point out is AMD’s push on their Dragon platform, which consists of a CPU, GPU, motherboards and software. No other company currently offers such a complete package of parts to the consumer, so their bragging rights are valid (things will change once Intel’s Larrabee hits, although its impact is obviously yet to be seen).

Closer Look at AMD’s Phenom II 955 Black Edition

As mentioned above, the 955 becomes AMD’s fastest Phenom II processor, and at 3.2GHz, it competes nicely with many of Intel’s offerings. From AMD’s mouth though, the 955 tackles the Q9550 head-on. From a pricing standpoint, AMD’s CPU is currently ~$15 less-expensive, so if performance comes close to that of the Q9550, it will be a good buy.

It’s also important to mention that one benefit the X4 955 offers over the Q9550 is that it’s an unlocked chip, meaning there are no limits to the overclocking potential, except from what kind of stress the silicon can handle. The multiplier is unlocked, so even if you don’t want to touch the base frequency, you’re still able to crank that simple figure, along with voltages, and hit a sweet overclock.

Like the X4 940 before it, the X4 955 has a TDP of 125W, but boosts the HT Bus to 4000MHz, from 3600MHz. It’s also worth noting that if you wanted to save a little bit of money, and overclocking isn’t a huge concern, another option is the X4 945, which offers an identical clock speed of the original Phenom II 940, but with a boosted bus. The difference in pricing to you is about $20.

CPU Name
Cores
Clock
Cache (L2/L3)
HT Bus
Socket
TDP
1Ku Price
AMD Phenom II X4 955 BE
4
3.2GHz
2+6MB
4000MHz
AM3
125W
$245
AMD Phenom II X4 945
4
3.0GHz
2+6MB
4000MHz
AM3
125W
$225
AMD Phenom II X4 940
4
3.0GHz
2+6MB
3600MHz
AM2+
125W
$195
AMD Phenom II X4 920
4
2.8GHz
2+6MB
3600MHz
AM2+
125W
$195
AMD Phenom II X4 810
4
2.6GHz
2+4MB
4000MHz
AM3
95W
$175
AMD Phenom II X3 720 BE
3
2.8GHz
1.5+6MB
4000MHz
AM3
95W
$145
AMD Phenom II X3 710
3
2.6GHz
1.5+6MB
4000MHz
AM3
95W
$125

For the $245 asking price, the X4 955 certainly looks like a great option on paper, but we all know that it’s the raw performance that decides whether a CPU wins or loses, so let’s first tackle our testing methodology, and then get right into our test results.

Test System & Methodology

At Techgage, we strive to make sure our results are as accurate as possible. Our testing is rigorous and time-consuming, but we feel the effort is worth it. In an attempt to leave no question unanswered, this page contains not only our testbed specifications, but also a fully-detailed look at how we conduct our testing.

If there is a bit of information that we’ve omitted, or you wish to offer thoughts or suggest changes, please feel free to shoot us an e-mail or post in our forums.

Test System

The table below lists the hardware for our two current machines, which remains unchanged throughout all testing, with the exception of the processor. Each CPU used for the sake of comparison is also listed here, along with the BIOS version of the motherboard used. In addition, each one of the URLs in this table can be clicked to view the respective review of that product, or if a review doesn’t exist, you will be led to the product on the manufacturer’s website.

Component
AMD Test System
Processors

AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition – Quad-Core, 3.20GHz, 1.325v
AMD Phenom II X4 810 – Quad-Core, 2.60GHz, 1.325v
AMD Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition – Tri-Core, 2.80GHz, 1.325v
AMD Athlon 64 X2 7750 – Dual-Core, 2.70GHz, 1.325v
Motherboard
Gigabyte MA790GP-DS4H – 790GX-based, F3 BIOS (01/13/09)
Memory

Corsair XMS3 DHX 2x2GB – DDR3-1066 5-5-5-15-2T, 2.10v
Graphics
Audio
On-Board Audio
Storage

Intel X-25M 80GB SSD
Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200.11
Power Supply
Corsair HX1000W
Chassis
SilverStone TJ10 Full-Tower
Display
Gateway XHD3000 30″
Cooling
Thermaltake V1
Et cetera
Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit

Component
Core i7 Test System
Processors
Intel Core i7-965 Extreme EditionQuad-Core, 3.20GHz, 1.30v
Intel Core i7-920 Quad-Core, 2.66GHz, 1.30v
Motherboard
ASUS Rampage II Extreme – X58-based, 0705 BIOS (11/21/08)
Memory

OCZ Gold 3x2GB – DDR3-1066 7-7-7-20-1T, 1.56v (920/940)
OCZ Gold 3x2GB – DDR3-1600 7-7-7-20-1T, 1.56v (965)
Graphics
Audio
On-Board Audio
Storage
Intel X-25M 80GB SSD

Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200.11
Power Supply
SilverStone DA1200
Chassis
SilverStone TJ10 Full-Tower
Display
Gateway XHD3000 30″
Cooling
Thermalright TRUE Black 120
Et cetera
Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit

Component
Core 2 Test System
Processors

Intel Core 2 Quad Q9650 – Quad-Core, 3.00GHz, 1.30v (Sim)
Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 – Quad-Core, 2.83GHz, 1.30v (Sim)
Intel Core 2 Quad Q9400 – Quad-Core, 2.66GHz, 1.30v
Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200 – Quad-Core, 2.33GHz, 1.30v
Intel Core 2 Duo E8600 – Dual-Core, 3.33GHz, 1.30v
Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 – Dual-Core, 3.16GHz, 1.30v (Sim)
Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 – Dual-Core, 3.00GHz, 1.30v
Intel Core 2 Duo E8300 – Dual-Core, 2.83GHz, 1.30v (Sim)
Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 – Dual-Core, 2.53GHz, 1.30v
Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5200 – Dual-Core 2.50GHz, 1.30v
Motherboard
ASUS Rampage Extreme – X48-based, 0501 BIOS (08/28/08)
Memory

Corsair XMS3 DHX 2x2GB – DDR3-1333 7-7-7-15-1T, 1.91v (1333FSB)
Corsair XMS3 DHX 2x2GB – DDR3-1066 6-6-6-15-1T, 1.91v (1066FSB)
Corsair XMS3 DHX 2x2GB – DDR3-800 6-6-6-15-1T, 1.91v (800FSB)

Graphics
Audio
On-Board Audio
Storage
Intel X-25M 80GB SSD

Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200.11
Power Supply
Corsair HX1000W
Chassis
SilverStone TJ10 Full-Tower
Display
Gateway XHD3000 30″
Cooling
Thermalright TRUE Black 120
Et cetera
Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit

(Sim) represents models that were tested using a faster, but under-clocked processor. For example, for the Q9550, we used the QX9770, since the specs are identical all-around, except for the clock speeds. Those were adjusted appropriately, effectively giving us a Q9550 to test with.

When preparing our testbeds for any type of performance testing, we follow these guidelines:

To aide with the goal of keeping accurate and repeatable results, we alter certain services in Windows Vista from starting up at boot. This is due to the fact that these services have the tendency to start up in the background without notice, potentially causing slightly inaccurate results. Disabling “Windows Search” turns off the OS’ indexing which can at times utilize the hard drive and memory more than we’d like.

Application Benchmarks

To help test out the real performance benefits of a given processor, we run a large collection of both real-world and synthetic benchmarks, including 3ds Max, Adobe Lightroom, TMPGEnc Xpress, Sandra 2009 and many more.

Our ultimate goal is always to find out which processor excels in a given scenario and why. Running all of the applications in our carefully-chosen suite can help better give us answers to those questions. Aside from application data, we also run two common games to see how performance scales there, including Call of Duty 4 and Half-Life 2: Episode Two.

Game Benchmarks

In an attempt to offer “real-world” results, we do not utilize timedemos in any of our reviews. Each game in our test suite is benchmarked manually, with the minimum and average frames-per-second (FPS) captured with the help of FRAPS 2.9.5.

To deliver the best overall results, each title we use is exhaustively explored in order to find the best possible level in terms of intensiveness and replayability. Once a level is chosen, we play through repeatedly to find the best possible route and then in our official benchmarking, we stick to that route as close as possible. Since we are not robots and the game can throw in minor twists with each run, no run can be identical to the pixel.

Each game and setting combination is tested twice, and if there is a discrepancy between the initial results, the testing is repeated until we see results we are confident with.

The two games we currently use for our motherboard reviews are listed below, with direct screenshots of the game’s setting screens and explanations of why we chose what we did.

Call of Duty: World at War

1680×1050
2560×1600




Crysis Warhead

1680×1050
2560×1600




Half-Life 2: Episode Two

1680×1050
2560×1600

SYSmark 2007 Preview

Synthetic benchmarks have typically been favored for performance testing, but the results they provide can be fairly abstract, and the methods they use to assign their scores can be dubious at times. By contrast, real-world application benchmarks provide performance metrics that apply directly to real-world usage, and we endeavor to apply both in our performance comparisons.

SYSmark 2007 Preview from BAPCo is a special case, because its synthetic scores are derived from tests in real-world applications. However, we still believe that synthetic benchmarking scores are best used to directly compare the performance of one piece of hardware to another, and not for developing an impression of real-world performance expectations. SYSmark is more useful than most synthetic benchmarking programs in our opinion, because its tests emulate tasks that people actually perform, in actual software programs that they are likely to use.

The benchmark is hands-free, using scripts to execute all of the real-world scenarios identically, such as video editing in Sony Vegas and image manipulation in Adobe Photoshop. At the conclusion of the suite of tests, five scores are delivered: an E-learning score, a Video Creation score, a Productivity score, and a 3D Performance score, as well as an aggregated ‘Overall’ score. These scores can still be fairly abstract, and are most useful for direct comparisons between test systems.

A quick note on methodology: SYSmark 2007 requires a clean install of Windows Vista 64-bit to run optimally. Before any testing is conducted, the hard drive is first wiped clean, and then a fresh Windows installation is conducted, then lastly, the necessary hardware drivers are installed. The ‘Three Iterations’ test suite is run, with the ‘Conditioning Run’ setting enabled. Then the results from the three runs are averaged and rounded up or down to the next whole number.

With the top chart so large, it’s hard to compare one CPU to another directly, but the overall score sums things up nicely. Here, the 955 scores 175, whereas the Q9550, in which it competes, scores 185. Not a huge difference, and not one that’s too important. Time for what really matters, real-world testing!

Workstation: Autodesk 3ds Max, Cinebench, POV-Ray

Autodesk’s 3ds Max is without question an industry standard when it comes to 3D modeling and animation, with DreamWorks, BioWare and Blizzard Entertainment being a few of its notable users. It’s a multi-threaded application that’s designed to be right at home on multi-core and multi-processor workstations or render farms, so it easily tasks even the biggest system we can currently throw at it.

For our testing, we use two project files that are designed to last long enough to find any weakness in our setup and also allows us to find a result that’s easily comparable between both motherboards and processors. The first project is a dog model included on recent 3ds Max DVD’s, which we infused with some Techgage flavor.

Our second project is a Bathroom scene that makes heavy use of ray tracing. Like the dog model, this one is also included with the application’s sample files DVD. The dog is rendered at an 1100×825 resolution, while the Bathroom is rendered as 1080p (1920×1080).

Intel tends to thrive with tests like these, but it appears that what’s important here is raw frequency, as the 955 outpaces the Q9550 in both tests, including the robust bathroom render.

Cinebench R10

Like 3DS Max, Cinema 4D is another popular cross-platform 3D graphics application that’s used by new users and experts alike. Its creators, Maxon, are well aware that their users are interested in huge computers to speed up rendering times, which is one reason why they released Cinebench to the public.

Cinebench R10 is based on the Cinema 4D engine and the test consists of rendering a high-resolution model of a motorcycle and gives a score at the end. Like most other 3D applications on the market, Cinebench will take advantage of as many cores as you can throw at it.

The theme continues here, which is great to see. For those modelers out there, the Phenom II is looking like an excellent choice. It’s less-expensive than the Q9550, but a better performer! That doesn’t happen all too often. Will things change with hardcore ray-tracing?

POV-Ray 3.7

Similar to Cinebench, the “Persistence of Vision Ray Tracer” is as you’d expect, a ray tracing application that also happens to be cross-platform. It allows you to take your environment and models and apply a ray tracing algorithm, based on a script you either write yourself or borrow from others. It’s a free application and has become a standard in the ray tracing community and some of the results that can be seen are completely mind-blowing.

The official version of POV-Ray is 3.6, but the 3.7 beta unlocks the ability to take full advantage of a multi-core processor, which is why we use it in our testing. Applying ray tracing algorithms can be extremely system intensive, so this is one area where multi-core processors will be of true benefit.

For our test, we run the built-in benchmark, which delivers a simple score (Pixels-Per-Second) the the end. The higher, the better. If one score is twice another, it does literally mean it rendered twice as fast.

Things don’t change at all, and I have to say that I’m incredibly impressed. Where ray-tracing is concerned, nothing can touch Core i7, but here, the 955 actually outpaces the 3.00GHz Q9650 (which i don’t have to mention is much more expensive). Let’s see how things fare in non-rendering tests.

Multi-Media: Adobe Lightroom, TMPGEnc Xpress

Photo manipulation benchmarks are more relevant than ever, given the proliferation of high-end digital photography hardware. For this benchmark, we test the system’s handling of RAW photo data using Adobe Lightroom, an excellent RAW photo editor and organizer that’s easy to use and looks fantastic.

For our testing, we take 100 RAW files (in Nikon’s .NEF file format) which have a 10-megapixel resolution, and export them as JPEG files in 1000×669 resolution, similar to most of the photos we use here on the website. Such a result could also be easily distributed online or saved as a low-resolution backup. This test involves not only scaling of the image itself, but encoding in a different image format. The test is timed indirectly using a stopwatch, and times are accurate to within +/- 0.25 seconds.

Our 955 is on a serious roll… beating out the Q9550 by a healthy 12 seconds.

TMPGEnc Xpress 4.5

When it comes to video transcoding, one of the best offerings on the market is TMPGEnc Xpress. Although a bit pricey, the software offers an incredible amount of flexibility and customization, not to mention superb format support. From the get go, you can output to DivX, DVD, Video-CD, Super Video-CD, HDV, QuickTime, MPEG, and more. It even goes as far as to include support for Blu-ray video!

There are a few reasons why we choose to use TMPGEnc for our tests. The first relates to the reasons laid out above. The sheer ease of use and flexibility is appreciated. Beyond that, the application does us a huge favor by tracking the encoding time, so that we can actually look away while an encode is taking place and not be afraid that we’ll miss the final encoding time. Believe it or not, not all transcoding applications work like this.

For our test, we take a 0.99GB high-quality DivX H.264 AVI video of Half-Life 2: Episode Two gameplay with stereo audio and transcode it to the same resolution of 720p (1280×720), but lower the bit rate in order to attain a modest file size. This test also utilizes the SSE instruction sets, either SSE2 or SSE4, depending on what the chip supports.

In this test, the results flip-flop. With our mobile encode, the X4 955 shaves 1s off what the Q9550 could accomplish, but things drastically change with the HD video, as AMD processors lack the SSE 4.1 instruction set, which that test uses.

Multi-Media: ProShow Gold, Sandra Multi-Media

While TMPGEnc XPress’ purpose is to convert video formats, ProShow from Photodex helps turn your collection of photos into a fantastic-looking slide show. I can’t call myself a slide show buff, but this tool is unquestionably definitive. It offers many editing abilities and the ability to export in a variety of formats, including a standard video file, DVD video and even HD video.

Like TMPGEnc and many other video encoders, ProShow can take full advantage of a multi-core processor. It doesn’t support SSE4 however, but hopefully will in the future as it would improve encoding times considerably. Still, when a slide show application handles a multi-core processor effectively, it has to make you wonder why there is such a delay in seeing a wider-range of such applications on the marketplace.

Well, AMD’s domination couldn’t last forever, right? In the case of ProShow, it seems to heavily favor Intel processors, so the result isn’t much of a surprise. Such stark differences just aren’t natural given what we’ve seen up to this point. This is one application likely to hit the cutting block in our upcoming methodology revision.

Sandra 2009 Multi-Media

This test here stresses the CPU’s ability to handle multi-media instructions and data, using both MMX and SSE2/3/4 as the instruction sets of choice. The results are divided by integer, floating point and double precision, three specific numbering formats used commonly in multi-media work.

The 955 may have fallen slightly behind in the previous test, but it catches right back up here, which again, is rather impressive given Intel’s typical multi-media dominence. The extra cache over the budget-oriented CPUs is certainly paying off.

Mathematics: Sandra Arithmetic, Crypto, Microsoft Excel

With each new processor launch, one thing that’s bound to prove faster are mathematical equations, which when all said and done, plays a massive role in a lot of our computing today. The faster an equation can be completed, the faster a math-heavy process can finish.

Sandra includes applications designed to specifically test the mathematical performance of processors, with the main one being the arithmetic test.

Flat-out math is another one of Intel’s strong-points, but here we see the 955 and Q9550 match up almost perfectly. If we’re basing things on a MHz scale, then Intel comes out a wee bit ahead.

Sandra 2009 Cryptography

Crypto is a major part of computing, whether you know it or not, and certain processes can prove slower than others, depending on their algorithms. User passwords on your home PC are encrypted, as are user passwords on web servers (like in our forums). Past that, crypto is used in other areas as well, such as with creating of unbreakable locks on files or assigning a hash to a particular file (like MD5).

In Sandra’s Cryptography test, the results are outputted as MB/s, higher being better. Although this is somewhat of an odd metric to go by, generally speaking, the higher the number, the faster the CPU tears through the respective algorithm, which comes down to how fast a password is either encrypted, decrypted, signed, et cetera.

Clock-to-clock, AMD’s offerings again perform a little under Intel’s, but current dollar for dollar, AMD is the winner where the 955 is concerned.

Microsoft Excel 2007

Most, if not all, businesses in existence have to crack open a spreadsheet at some point. Though simple in concept, spreadsheets are an ideal way to either track information or compute large calculations all in real-time. This is important when you run a business that deals with a large amount of expenses.

Although the importance of how fast a calculation takes in an Excel file is, we include results here since they heavily test the mathematical capabilities of each processor. Because Excel 2007 is completely multi-threaded (it can even take advantage of an 8-Core Skulltrail), it makes for a great benchmark to show the scaling between all of our CPUs.

I’ll let Intel explain the two files we use:

Monte CarloThis workload calculates the European Put and Call option valuation for Black-Scholes option pricing using Monte Carlo simulation. It simulates the calculations performed when a spreadsheet with input parameters is updated and must recalculate the option valuation. In this scenario we execute approximately 300,000 iterations of Monte Carlo simulation. In addition, the workload uses Excel lookup functions to compare the put price from the model with the historical market price for 50,000 rows to understand the convergence. The input file is a 70.1 MB spreadsheet.

CalculationsThis workload executes approximately 28,000 sets of calculations using the most common calculations and functions found in Excel*. These include common arithmetic operations like addition, subtraction, division, rounding and square root. It also includes common statistical analysis functions such as Max, Min, Median and Average. The calculations are performed after a spreadsheet with a large dataset is updated with new values and must re-calculate many data points. The input file is a 6.2 MB spreadsheet.

Here’s a good example of where Intel CPUs seem to thrive. The 955 falls quite behind the Q9550 here, which is surprising given the fairly on-par performance in the previous two tests.

System: Sandra Memory, Multi-Core Efficiency

Generally speaking, the faster the processor, the higher the system-wide bandwidth and the lower the latency. As is always the case, faster is better when it comes to processors, as we’ll see below. But with Core i7, the game changes up a bit.

Whereas previous memory controllers utilized a dual-channel operation, Intel threw that out the window to introduce triple-channel, which we talked a lot about at August’s IDF. Further, since Intel integrates the IMC onto the die of the new CPUs, benefits are going to be seen all-around.

Before jumping into the results, we already had an idea of what to expect, and just as we did, the results seen are nothing short of staggering.

As far as I’m concerned, benchmarking for memory bandwidth is almost a moot point, because at some point, we hit a wall when the real-world benefits will stop being increased. In the case of AMD, their integrated memory controller avails us more than enough bandwidth, out-performing Intel’s entire Core 2 line-up with absolute ease. It falls a bit short of Intel’s triple-channel configuration, but that was to be expected. Again though, anything over 5,000MB/s is very unlikely to benefit a regular consumer.

Sandra 2009 Multi-Core Efficiency

How fast can one core swap data with another? It might not seem that important, but it definitely is if you are dealing with a true multi-threaded application. The faster data can be swapped around, the faster it’s going to be finished, so overall, inter-core speeds are important in every regard.

Even without looking at the data, we know that Core i7 is going to excel here, for a few different reasons. The main is the fact that this is Intel’s first native Quad-Core. Rather than have two Dual-Core dies placed beside each other, i7 was built to place four cores together, so that in itself improves things. Past that, the ultra-fast QPI bus likely also has something to do with speed increases.

This test is where we can see huge differences between AMD’s and Intel’s CPUs, with Intel being the clear leader in both inter-core bandwidth and latencies. How much this matters in the grand scheme, but seeing as AMD’s offerings scale quite well in multi-threaded benchmarks, I’m assuming it’s not much. Still, it’s rather interesting to see such staggering differences between the architectures here.

Gaming: Call of Duty: World at War, Half-Life 2: Episode Two

While some popular game franchises are struggling to keep themselves healthy, Call of Duty doesn’t have much to worry about. This is Treyarch’s third go at a game in the series, and a first for one that’s featured on the PC. All worries leading up to this title were all for naught, though, as Treyarch delivered on all promises.

To help keep things fresh, CoD: World at War focuses on battles not exhaustively explored in previous WWII-inspired games. These include battles which take place in the Pacific region, Russia and Berlin, and variety is definitely something this game pulls off well, so it’s unlikely you’ll be off your toes until the end of the game.

For our testing, we use a level called “Relentless”, as it’s easily one of the most intensive levels in the game. It features tanks, a large forest environment and even a few explosions. This level depicts the Battle of Peleliu, where American soldiers advance to capture an airstrip from the Japanese. It’s a level that’s both exciting to play and one that can bring even high-end systems to their knees.

Luckily for hardcore CoD players, the game’s performance doesn’t change with a faster CPU, which is rather impressive. Here, the game ran just as well on our lowly E5200 as it did on our QX9770.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

The original Half-Life 2 might have first seen the light of day close to four years ago, but it’s still arguably one of the greatest-looking games ever seen on the PC. Follow-up versions, including Episode One and Episode Two, do well to put the Source Engine upgrades to full use. While playing, it’s hard to believe that the game is based on a four+ year old engine, but it still looks great and runs well on almost any GPU purchased over the past few years.

Like Call of Duty 4, Half-Life 2: Episode Two runs well on modest hardware, but a recent mid-range graphics card is recommended if you wish to play at higher than 1680×1050 or would like to top out the available options, including anti-aliasing and very high texture settings.

This game benefits from both the CPU and GPU, and the skies the limit. In order to fully top out the available settings and run the highest resolution possible, you need a very fast GPU or GPUs along with a fast processor. Though the in-game options go much higher, we run our tests with 4xAA and 8xAF to allow the game to remain playable on the smaller mid-range cards.

Unlike CoD, HL2: Episode Two does love extra CPU power, and that’s evidenced above, but only at the highly-sporadic 1680×1050 resolution. That resolution has proven to be a chore, because the average FPS can fluctuate a great deal. What’s important to note here is that at our top setting of 2560×1600, the differences are almost zero.

Gaming: Crysis Warhead, 3DMark Vantage

As PC enthusiasts, we tend to be drawn to games that offer spectacular graphics… titles that help reaffirm your belief that shelling out lots of cash for that high-end monitor and PC was well worth it. But it’s rare when a game comes along that is so visually-demanding, it’s unable to run fully maxed out on even the highest-end systems on the market. In the case of the original Crysis, it’s easy to see that’s what Crytek was going for.

Funny enough, even though Crysis was released close to a year ago, the game today still has difficulty running at 2560×1600 with full detail settings – and that’s even with overlooking the use of anti-aliasing! Luckily, Warhead is better optimized and will run smoother on almost any GPU, despite looking just as gorgeous as its predecessor, as you can see in the screenshot below.

The game includes four basic profiles to help you adjust the settings based on how good your system is. These include Entry, Mainstream, Gamer and Enthusiast – the latter of which is for the biggest of systems out there, unless you have a sweet graphics card and are only running 1680×1050. We run our tests at the Gamer setting as it’s very demanding on any current GPU and is a proper baseline of the level of detail that hardcore gamers would demand from the game.

Our previous games didn’t show real differences between CPUs, and Crysis Warhead is no different. You can be rest-assured that no matter your PC, this game is going to run like molasses!

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage

Although we generally shun automated gaming benchmarks, we do like to run at least one to see how our GPUs scale when used in a ‘timedemo’-type scenario. Futuremark’s 3DMark Vantage is without question the best such test on the market, and it’s a joy to use, and watch. The folks at Futuremark are experts in what they do, and they really know how to push that hardware of yours to its limit.

The company first started out as MadOnion and released a GPU-benchmarking tool called XLR8R, which was soon replaced with 3DMark 99. Since that time, we’ve seen seven different versions of the software, including two major updates (3DMark 99 Max, 3DMark 2001 SE). With each new release, the graphics get better, the capabilities get better and the sudden hit of ambition to get down and dirty with overclocking comes at you fast.

Similar to a real game, 3DMark Vantage offers many configuration options, although many (including us) prefer to stick to the profiles which include Performance, High and Extreme. Depending on which one you choose, the graphic options are tweaked accordingly, as well as the resolution. As you’d expect, the better the profile, the more intensive the test.

Performance is the stock mode that most use when benchmarking, but it only uses a resolution of 1280×1024, which isn’t representative of today’s gamers. Extreme is more appropriate, as it runs at 1920×1200 and does well to push any single or multi-GPU configuration currently on the market – and will do so for some time to come.

The results here are just as we expected. Generally, the better the CPU, the higher the score. The overall 3DMark Score doesn’t vary much, however, as the benchmark doesn’t weigh the CPU score that heavily, which after taking a look at our three games tested here, is a good thing.

Overclocking AMD’s X4 955 Black Edition

Before discussing results, let’s take a minute to briefly discuss what I consider to be a worthwhile overclock. As I’ve mentioned in past content, I’m not as interested in finding the highest overclock possible as much as I am interested in finding the highest stable overclock. To me, if an overclock crashes the computer after a few minutes of running a stress-test, it has little value except for competition.

How we declare an overclock stable is simple… we stress it as hard as possible for a certain period of time, both with CPU-related tests and also GPU-related, to conclude on what we’ll be confident is 100% stability throughout all possible computing scenarios.

For the sake of CPU stress-testing, we use IntelBurnTest, for reasons I’ve laid out in a recent forum thread. Compared to other popular CPU stress-testers, IBT’s tests are far more gruelling, and proof of that is seen by the fact that it manages to heat the CPU up to 20°C hotter than competing applications, like SP2004. Also, despite its name, IntelBurnTest is just as effective on AMD processors. Generally, if the CPU survives the first half-hour of this stress, there’s a good chance that it’s mostly stable, but I strive for a 12 hour stress as long as time permits.

If the CPU stress passes without error, then GPU stress-testing begins, in order to assure a system-wide stable overclock. To test for this, 3DMark Vantage’s Extreme test is used, with the increased resolution of 2560×1600, looped nine times. If this passes, some time is dedicated to real-world game testing, to make sure that gaming is just as stable as it would be if the CPU were at stock. If both these CPU and GPU tests pass without issue, we can confidently declare a stable overclock.

Overclocking AMD’s X4 955 Black Edition

Our overclocking results for the 955 are a little brief, because I hit a cap rather quickly. The problem was simple… the CPU was overheating far too quickly, and as a result, I had to stop at 3.5GHz. While running OCCT, the test would have to halt itself within three minutes due to heat. Whether or not this was due to an incapable CPU cooler (Thermaltake V1) or not, I’m unsure, but that cooler has served us well in the past.

I can’t conclude that this is the top-overclock the chip can handle, because I’m certain it isn’t. If you have a robust cooling solution, you’ll no doubt go higher. For me, even lowering the voltages didn’t help the temperature enough, nor was that any more stable. To get this 300MHz boost though, I didn’t have to change a single voltage, at all. Overclocking made easy… stock voltage and and a low ceiling!

Power Consumption, Final Thoughts

It goes without saying that power efficiency is at the forefront of many consumers’ minds today, and for good reason. Whether you are trying to save money or the environment – or both – it’s good to know just how much effort certain vendors are putting into their products to help them excel in this area. Both AMD and Intel have worked hard to develop efficient chips, and that’s evident with each new launch. The CPUs are getting faster, and use less power, and hopefully things will stay that way.

To help see what kind of wattage a given processor draws on average, we use a Kill-A-Watt that’s plugged into a power bar that’s in turn plugged into one of the wall sockets, with the test system plugged directly into that. The monitor and other components are plugged into the other socket and is not connected to the Kill-A-Watt. For our system specifications, please refer to our methodology page.

To test, the computer is first boot up and left to sit at idle for five minutes, at which point the current wattage is recorded if stable. To test for full CPU load, IntelBurnTest is run with maximum memory stress for a total of five minutes. During that run, the highest point the wattage reaches on the meter is captured and becomes our “Max Load”. For i7, we use eight instances of SP2004 instead of IntelBurnTest, as the latter is not yet fully compatible with the newer processors.

The 955 was meant to be compared to the Q9550 from Intel, but we lack power information for that here. I’m also not completely confident on our load numbers here, given the X4 810 came nowhere near 315W. I wrapped this article up while on the plane to Taiwan for Computex, so I couldn’t go back and test that easily. Either way, the idle wattages are fairly high for what it’s being compared to, but it certainly isn’t a deal-breaker.

Final Thoughts

For many months (or years depending on who you ask), AMD had a rough time “catching-up” to Intel in terms of real competitiveness, but since the Phenom II launch, AMD fans have had a reason to cheer, and the X4 955 is a good example of why they have the right to. AMD said the 955 was comparable to the Q9550 from Intel, and they were right on the money. Both chips flip-flopped in our charts, but AMD held the crown for the majority.

At $245, the Phenom X4 955 is a fantastic choice for those looking to upgrade their AM2+ machine or build a new machine for whatever purpose. It performed well in all of our benchmarks, including the most important ones, and it’s well-rounded overall. Intel’s Q9550 still holds the crown in certain tests, such as Excel and ProShow, but neither of those come into the equation for most people looking to pick up a new CPU.

The absolutely only issue I have with the X4 955 is the same issue I have with all AMD CPUs… the CPU socket mounting design. It’s horrible, and needs to change… it’s that simple. AMD is kind of locked into it for now, but never have I had so much trouble installing a CPU cooler as I have recently with AMD’s processors. I’m not talking about just one cooler or motherboard either, but various types of each.

This of course is not something to be weighed too heavily when deciding upon a new CPU, but when Intel CPUs are usually very easy to install, so should those built for AMD CPUs. AMD does have the benefit of rarely needing the rear bracket removed, but the hassle I’ve had to go through to properly mount coolers such as the V1 isn’t really a great substitute. Maybe I’m wrong and alone in this thinking, and if I am, let me know in our related thread!

The bottom-line… if you’re looking to build a new machine or upgrade, the 955 is well-worth its cost-of-admission. Though I’d still recommend non-overclockers take a look at the $20-less 945, as it’s still beefy but even more affordable.

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