While Intel has the performance end of the CPU market sewn up, AMD has been looking out for the little guy, focussing squarely on the mainstream market and cheap chips with competitive processing chops.
The Sandy Bridge family might be your go-to guys at the moment for CPU upgrades thanks to Quick Sync and Turbo Boost technologies, but if every penny counts, AMD's Phenom II chips squeeze every drop of performance out of a middling budget.
The compromise though is some architecture that's getting rather long in the tooth. The X4 980 Black Edition is no exception.
Pound for pound, it delivers excellent performance. HyperThreading though is off the menu on the AMD side so you're relying on four threads and four cores to slice through processing tasks. How much of a problem that is depends on your CPU's workload – video encoding and design apps make good use of multi-threaded processors, and although games have been slow off the mark, we've seen some big titles recently that do work with multiple cores and threads to speed up rendering tasks.
That X4 architecture's a bit old now – it was after all AMD's first quad-core architecture. Intel's 32nm chips are superior in a straight fight, but with the X4 980 BE you still get 6MB of L3 cache and an out-of-the-box clockspeed of 3.7GHz – AMD's fastest ever quad-core.
But of course, it isn't a straight fight. At £140, the 'enthusiast' X4 980 is priced against Intel's entry-level Sandy Bridge chip, the i5 2400. That means it has a 500MHz faster clockspeed, but doesn't have the Turbo Boost and Quick Sync chops of the i5. A stalemate, roughly.
That double-edged sword of older technology gives the AMD chip another selling point though. It's an easy upgrade. Any Socket AM3 motherboard will support it, so you can reinvigorate two-year-old machines with this chip. It's certainly an easier, and cheaper, upgrade than the jump to Sandy Bridge.
Cinebench R10: Seconds: Quicker is better
Phenom II X4 980 BE (Stock): 59
Phenom II X4 980 BE (OC'd): 51
Phenom II X4 975 (Stock): 60
Phenom II X4 975 (OC'd): 51
Phenom II X6 1090T (Stock): 47
Phenom II X6 1090T (OC'd): 39
X264 HD v2: Frames per second: Higher is better
Phenom II X4 980 BE (Stock): 20
Phenom II X4 980 BE (OC'd): 23
Phenom II X4 975 (Stock): 19
Phenom II X4 975 (OC'd): 21
Phenom II X6 1090T (Stock): 26
Phenom II X6 1090T (OC'd): 32
DX11 gaming performance
Just Cause 2: Frames per second: Higher is better
Phenom II X4 980 BE (Stock): 47.93
Phenom II X4 980 BE (OC'd): 52.41
Phenom II X4 975 (Stock): 48.98
Phenom II X4 975 (OC'd): 51.34
Phenom II X6 1090T (Stock): 45.58
Phenom II X6 1090T (OC'd): 44.89
Here's where things get weird though – it's not Intel that's muscling the X4 980 BE out of the market… it's AMD itself.
Its focus on the sub-£200 CPU market has led to a product range that caters for literally every budget. Can't go a penny over £140? X4 980 it is. Won't budge an inch on £135? X4 975 then. In fact, the range is so overpopulated that some CPUs start pushing out others.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet then the Phenom II X6 1090T. It's a six-core, 3.2GHz brute that's also happy in any AM3 board. It shreds the X4 980 Black Edition to bits in processing tasks… and incredibly it's £15 cheaper.
While the X4 can't live with the X6 in video encoding, it does still have the edge in gaming thanks to that faster clockspeed. What's more, they both overclock well – topping 4GHz on air. So which to buy?
We're back to multi-core support again. If you're happy getting the most out of a single core in your applications, the X4 980 Black Edition is looking good. As games step up their multicore support though, the X6 has the potential to blitz the 980 for less cash.
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