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Review: Intel Joins The Dual-Core Wars

The new HP Compaq dc7600 is one of the first systems to employ Intel's new dual-core Pentium D CPU. How does it compare to AMD's X2?

The battle for the dual-core crown continues. Back in May, both Intel and AMD announced their respective dual-core solutions within five days of each other. However, AMD's Athlon X2 actually shipped several weeks ahead of Intel's Pentium D. Is the last product to hit the shelves destined to be the loser of this particular race? Or is Intel's dual-core processor good enough to wipe out AMD's first-to-the-market advantage?

Back in the end of May, I reviewed one of the first systems available with the Athlon X2 4200+: Cyberpower’s Ultra Workstation 3000. In this review, I'll look at Hewlett-Packard's Compaq dc7600 midtower system, which comes equipped with the Intel Pentium D 820 dual-core processor.

Intel Plays Catch-Up
Haste makes waste -- and sometimes results in a product with problems. Because Intel had to rush to catch up to AMD, it ended up with a rather awkward design for its desktop dual-core chip that has the cores positioned side-by-side. Intel re-used its single-core memory bus structure -- a strategy which works well with two separate processors, but is not the most efficient design for two cores in one package. (Intel’s Paxville CPU, a Xeon processor aimed at the server crowd, will correct that problem.) Inefficiency at the design stage can cause the final product to be more complex than it would otherwise have been, and greater complexity rarely leads to optimum performance.

Intel’s processors have significant clock speed advantages over their AMD rivals. However, the AMD processors typically test faster. So which is better?

However, that doesn't mean Intel is out of the race. AMD’s dual-core Athlon X2 processor has had its share of problems as well. AMD decided to use an existing form factor for its X2 processors so that they could be plugged into existing motherboards and used effectively “…with just a simple BIOS upgrade.” While this sounds good, in practice it often takes several BIOS revisions to get a system working at or near the promised level of the Athlon X2. As usual, it will take a product-specific motherboard to put the polish on the part.

A Closer Look At The Pentium D
The 2.8Ghz Pentium D 820, which powers the HP Compaq dc7600, is the slowest of the 8xx dual cores. Intel's other two dual-core processors, the D 830 and D 840, are clocked at 3.0GHz and 3.2GHz, respectively.

There’s also a dual-core Extreme Edition (EE) 840 that runs at 3.2GHz and employs Intel’s HyperThreading (HT) technology (as will Intel's forthcoming Paxville Xeon processors), which creates a virtual two-processor environment from each core. The dual-core EE 840, therefore, presents itself as four processors rather than two. It costs $750 more than the D 820.

Most of the 8xx-series CPUs also include Intel’s Enhanced SpeedStep Technology, which first appeared in mobile and server processors. This is a dynamic process that adjusts voltage and core speed as processor load varies. The D 820 lacks this feature simply because it’s already running at the lowest speed it’s capable of. All of the 8xx processors (codenamed “Smithfield”) were designed in a 775-pin package, with 16KB Level 1 (L1) cache and 1MB Level 2 (L2) cache per core.

The Pentium D 820's direct competitor is AMD’s latest and least expensive Athlon X2, the 2.0GHz 3800+, currently priced about $100 higher than its Intel rival. The X2 3800+ has 64K data and 64K instruction L1 caches as well as 512MB L2 cache per core. The top-of-the-line X2 is currently the 4800+, with a 2.4GHz clock and 2MB of Level 2 cache shared between each core. The 2.2GHz Athlon X2 4200+ is snuggled in the middle. (For a chart showing basic info about the various CPUs, you can check out our CPU Buyer's Guide.)

All told, Intel’s processors have significant clock speed advantages over their AMD rivals. However, the AMD processors typically test faster. So which is better? The truth lies somewhere in the middle – clock speed and design both have an impact, and putting those two components to their best use depends on what you’re doing.

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