If you try and recollect AMD’s standout CPUs, the only one that comes to mind is their Athlon 64 series, which back in the day ruled the PC segment. Since then, they’ve had their share of successes (if you ignore the first Phenom), but haven’t really managed to crack Intel’s success streak. Their current line of processors, the Phenom II and Athlon II offer good value for money for those on a tight budget. Honestly, the only reason you would go for a AMD-based system today is because you can’t afford Intel’s Sandy Bridge platform. As far as pure performance is concerned, be it gaming or productivity applications, Intel’s mid-high end CPUs can easily match, if not beat, AMD’s flagship offerings.
Even before Bulldozer arrived, AMD had one trick up their sleeve over Intel, which was to offer more cores than competition for the same price. While this was helpful in certain multi-threaded applications, it was a very niche target, which didn’t seem to help in most of the other areas. With the arrival of Bulldozer, AMD has upped the ante by offering consumers a maximum of 8 cores for a very reasonable price. With this, they also claim performance jumps of up to 30 percent over their previous flagship offering, which was Phenom II X6 based on the Thuban core.
Bulldozer opens a new leaf, a completely redesigned architecture from the ground up that uses Global Foundries new 32nm fabrication process. The new chips adopt the ‘FX’ brand name and are based on the new AM3+ socket for which the 990-series chipset was created. The FX line of CPUs were designed as a high-end series, so all of them come with unlocked multipliers. The new microarchitecture involves modules in which resides two integer cores. Each module gets to play with 2 MB of L2 cache, whereas there is a single pool of L3 cache shared among all the modules. For instance, the flagship FX-8150 that we’ll be testing today features four Bulldozer modules, which essentially makes it a 8-core CPU. The lower-end FX chips will also have a full 8-core Bulldozer die, but with some modules disabled. AMD did mention that they will not support core unlocking this time around. The max TDP of Bulldozer is 125W, which is same as the previous Phenom II X6. This is not bad given the fact that AMD have managed to squeeze in two more core while keeping the same TDP.
AMD's new range of CPUs
Turbo Core makes a comeback, allowing you to push the speed of the CPU further when only few cores are used. This is similar to what Intel calls Turbo Boost. However, in the previous architecture, the Turbo speeds could be sustained for just a few seconds. The FX-8150 has a rated Turbo Core frequency of 4.2GHz, but will it run at that frequency for a sustained time or simply peak at drop back down is something we’ll have to check. Along with the previous instructions sets, AMD’s new additions match up to the ones used by Intel in Sandy Bridge along with AVX, FMA4 and XOP and AES. With a wider Floating Point Accelerator, we have Hyper Transport 3.1. The built-in memory controller now has native support for 1866MHz DDR3 memory, something which Sandy Bridge lacks.
Striking a pose for the camera
You notice one glaring hole in the feature list and that’s the onboard GPU, or rather the lack of it. AMD have not incorporated a graphics card in the die and probably never will since this is targeted at high-end users who wouldn’t bother with a IGP to begin with. The funny thing is that they haven’t even bothered to add one in the 900 series chipset. None of them so far (the 990FX, 990X and 970) have an IGP unless they decide to release a 990GX. For those looking for an onboard solution, you can go with any 890GX based motherboard, since it is backwards compatible. Make sure you check if there is a new BIOS with the manufacturer though before you jump the gun. The compatibility stops there, however since AM2 and AM2+ board are based on DDR2 and Bulldozer dosen’t have a DDR2 memory controller. At least we can be thankful for something, unlike Intel who forces you to give up a perfectly working board for a new CPU.
Introducing the 990FX chipset
With the new CPU architecture comes a new 9-series chipset based on the AM3+ socket. The new series features Hyper Transport 3.1, SLI and CrossFireX, PCIE 2.0 (no 3.0 yet). There are just minor differences between the 990FX, 990X and 970, which involve the number of supported GPUs and the maximum supported TDP.
The 990FX chipset
The 990FX supports quad SLI and CrossFireX with two dedicated x16 PCIE lanes. There’s also a new Southbridge, SB950, which bumps up the native SATA 6Gb/s to six, instead of two. It also supports upto 16 MB BIOS, which means UEFI (click BIOS) can be implemented. Oddly, there’s no native support for USB 3.0, which means manufacturers will have to turn to third party vendors for the USB 3.0 controller.
Setting it up
AMD sent us the reviewers kit, which included a FX-8150 CPU and the MSI 990FXA-GD80, their flagship offering. The CPU itself comes packaged in a fancy metal container instead of a paper box. The bundled cooler is nothing much to shout about and looks pretty much identical to their previous stock coolers. With a aluminium heatsink, the cooler has a copper base and two copper heatpipes, which is cooled with a 80mm fan. The problem is that it’s just two noisy with an annoying rattling sound even when idle and isn’t very good at cooling. Thankfully, all AM3 coolers work just as well with AM3+, so we ditched it and bolted on the Antec Khuler 620 which immediately dropped the temps down by 10 degrees and was silent.
A good feature-rich board
MSI uses Military Class II components, which include solid state capacitors, Hi-c CAP with Tantalum core. You even get a little certificate as proof of the certification. Being a high-end board, there are plenty of LEDs scattered across the board, including debug LEDs. There are a total of four PCIE slots for quad SLI and CrossFireX and OC Genie II with dedicated buttons on the mainboard.
We’ve pitted the FX-8150 against the Core i7-2600K, which is the best CPU you can buy for socket 1155, right now. All the tests were run with Turbo enabled for both CPUs. In the case of the AMD chip, we manually set the Turbo frequency to 4.2GHz for 4 cores, instead of the default 3.9GHz. We ran a mix of real world and synthetic benchmarks to get an idea of how well the CPU scales in different scenarios. We’ve also added some new tests like PCMark 7 and AIDA 64’s Cache and Memory benchmark. Graysky’s x264 HD benchmark shows how fast the system is able to encode a HD video clip. It’s also optimized to use multiple cores of the CPU. Finally, we used the ‘Retouch Artists Speed Test ‘ with Photoshop CS5 to get a real world idea of how the CPU handles complex image manipulations. In all the tests, higher numbers are better, unless specified.
It's a massacre
Well, this is not something we expected, but can’t say I’m surprised. Intel’s quad-core thrashes the FX-8150 in almost all the benchmarks. In the x264 video encoding test, the first pass is lightly-threaded, which is why the 2600K pulls ahead. The second pass is more heavily threaded, which is why both the CPUs are on par. The shared L3 cache latency hasn’t improved much, as it’s still slower than Sandy Bridge.
Overdrive at work
For overclocking the CPU, you could do it via the BIOS or the motherboard utility or OverDrive (OD) from AMD. We stuck with OD, as it’s a lot more user-friendly, giving you more control over all the settings. Since the FX-8150 comes with an unlocked multiplier, you simply start pushing that upwards till you find a stable frequency. With the Bus Speed set to stock and the multiplier set to x22, we were able to get it stable at 4.4GHz. This, of course using water cooling to keep the temperature down. We now turn our attention to Turbo Core. You can choose between two levels of boost, 3.9GHz and 4.2GHz as well as the number of cores to be boosted. Once again though, the CPU will only hit that frequency if one or two cores are being used, anymore and it drops down. The rest of the time it operates at the stock frequency itself. It’s a slight improvement over Thuban, but it is still not as good as Intel's implementation.
You would assume that a 8-core CPU would cost you an arm and a leg, but that’s not the case with AMD. The FX-8150, their flagship CPU, retails for just Rs.15,500, which is the same price as the Core i7-2600K. Even though this has 8 cores, sadly that doesn’t reflect very well in real world tests. On paper, the Bulldozer appears superior to Sandy Bridge, but in almost all the tests we ran, the 2600K pummelled the eight-legged CPU. Even the new 900-series chipset is a letdown. Compared to the 800-series, it barely offers any new useful features. We don’t understand why AMD would leave out native USB 3.0 support, if this is their ‘enthusiast’ platform. The rating we've given is for the CPU alone and not the motherboard
All suited up
We’ve all waited a long time for Bulldozer and sadly, it’s not what we were expecting. AMD failed to deliver on the promise of it being 30 percent faster, which it clearly isn’t. So, we are back to square one. If you are looking to build a relatively future-proof rig on a budget, then Intel’s Sandy Bridge is the way to go.
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