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Intel's Core 2 Duo: new rulers of the CPU world

July 15, 2006

Intel's Core 2 Duo CPU has arrived, and it's enough to make an AMD fanatic weep.

Conroe processorI'm no Intel fanboy: I cut my teeth on the AMD 286-16, and have built many AMD systems since (with only one brief flirt with an Intel processor: the Celeron 300, overclocked to 450 MHz). But now, the writing's on AMD's wall. With the Core 2 Duo, Intel owns the future - and that's good for all of us.

The Core 2 Duo does not represent a simple redesign of the Pentium 4 processor line, or a shift to smaller-scale manufacturing. Instead, Core 2 Duo takes a radical rebuild of the Pentium M/Core Duo core, and throws in a handful of significant new features.

The Core 2 Duo features twin cores sharing 2 to 4 MB of level 2 cache, is capable of executing 4 64-bit instructions per clock cycle per core, and runs a quad-pumped front side bus at 1,066 MHz (266 MHz x 4). Max. power draw is 65W - half that of its hottest Pentium D and AMD CPU competitors: cooler per instruction than anything else. SSE instructions are now processed in a single clock cycle. And as expected, Intel's Virtualization Technology is fully supported.

Core 2 Duo comes in two flavors: Conroe for desktop, and Merom for notebook. Thus far, only the Conroe version has been released to select reviewers; it is scheduled for formal launch on July 27th. Unfortunately, Ars Informatica does not rate high enough with Intel to score a preview version. Still, Tomshardware, AnandTech, and others have already reported their exhaustive analysis, testing, and (rather consistently glowing) results.

For once, new technology and top-of-the-line performance is available to the budget-conscious consumer. The entry-level Core 2 Duo E6300 will debut at $183 US; the E6400 at $224, and E6600 at $316. The first two have 2 MB of L2 cache; the E6600 and beyond have 4 MB. Clock speed, logically, increases with each CPU.

The E6300 is falls about 10-25% shy of top current processors, in gaming, application performance, and synthetic benchmarks. The E6400 appears roughly equivalent to AMD's and Intel's current best.

In high-end games, the E6600 outperforms all of its AMD and Pentium D competitors, including the Athlon 64 FX-62. And the gap between the E6600 and the the much pricier X6800 Core 2 Extreme Edition (est. price, $999) typically varies from 4-35%, even when the latter is overclocked. In fact, overclocking often worsens overall frame rates. Given that the overall difference in frame rates between X6800 and E6600 usually falls under 15%, the much cheaper E6600 is easy to recommend.

In various office applications, audio and video encoding, in sythetic benchmarks and multitasking, the E6600 beats all non-Intel and older Intel processors - though the Pentium Extreme Edition 965 scores a few individual wins, it still loses every category. Again, the X6800 trumps its lower-weight rival by 15-50%. Does that make the E6600 a better buy? Your call - but it outperforms every previous processor on the market.

Will AMD regain the crown with its new AM2 architecture? Not a chance. Current projections give it up to a 7% performance edge over the current 939 platform. When K8L finally appears (2007? 2008?), will it be enough to dethrone the new king? No matter how much I've always rooted for AMD, I doubt it. Only time will tell.

Those shopping for a new system should wait until Core 2 Duo hits the market. With AMD X2 prices projected to range from $169-$403, and not a one coming close to a mid-level Core 2 Duo, I can't really recommend anything but the latter. The new Intel offerings are incredibly compelling, and in my opinion, are the best choices for both value-conscious and performance-hungry consumers.

Still, even if you insist on an older CPU, Core 2 Duo will cause their prices to plummet. Good news for everyone, indeed.

Recommendations:

cheapest performance CPU: Core 2 Duo, E6300
best performance for price: Core 2 Duo, E6600
ultimate CPU: Core 2 Extreme X6800


Note: the Core 2 Extreme Edition has an unlocked multiplier, and in initial testing overclocked by 15% or more. With only a little increase in heat output - should be easier to keep cool and quiet. If overclocking's your game ...

Motherboard recommendations must await another article: Intel, ASUS, Abit, Gigabyte and other mobos are available, but still await exhaustive testing. Stay tuned.


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