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If you have between USD 115 and USD 120 to spend on a CPU, you have two choices, the Athlon II X4 640 (which is a quad-core CPU running at 3 GHz) or the Core i3 530 (which is a dual-core CPU running at 2.93 GHz). Which one should you buy? That is what we will try to find out in this review.
First, let’s meet the contenders.
The Athlon II X4 is a quad-core CPU, so it has two extra cores compared to the Core i3, which is a dual-core CPU. The Core i3, however, has Hyper-Threading technology, a feature that emulates two processing cores per physical core. So even though the Core i3 is a dual-core processor, the operating system recognizes it as having four cores. Of course the processing power of these two emulated cores is not the same as that of two real cores.
The Core i3, on the other hand, comes with an L3 memory cache, a feature that promises to increase performance. Athlon II CPUs don’t have this feature, and in fact, this is the main difference between the Athlon II and Phenom II – the Phenom II does have this component.
As opposed to 32-nm Core i5 processors, the Core i3 family doesn’t support the Turbo Boost feature, which increases the CPU clock rate depending on the CPU load.
Another difference between the two CPUs is the support for SSE4 on Core i3 (both SSE4.1 and SSE4.2). Processors from AMD don’t support this instruction set. AMD has a proprietary implementation called SSE4a, which is not the same thing as SSE4: it has only four instructions, while SSE4 has 54 (47 in SSE4.1 and seven in SSE4.2).
Both CPUs have an embedded memory controller supporting DDR3 memories up to 1,333 MHz.
A unique feature found in the Core i3 is an integrated video controller. On a Core i3 system, video is produced by the processor and not by the motherboard chipset – unless you add a “real” video card and disable the integrated video. This integrated graphics controller is a DirectX 10 part running at 733 MHz with 12 processing engines (“shader units”).
Since the Core i3 has this feature we decided to install the Athlon II X4 640 on a motherboard with integrated video. Our choice was a model based on the AMD 890GX chipset, priced in the same range as the motherboard used with the Core i3 (a model based on the Intel H55 Express chipset). Both systems have more or less the same cost, creating a valid comparison. We also tested these CPUs with a mainstream video card (Radeon HD 5670) installed, disabling the integrated video, so we can compare the performance of these CPUs with the integrated video out of the equation.
Below you have a table comparing the main features of the two CPUs.
|Athlon II X4 640||4||3 GHz||No||Propus||45 nm||95 W||AM3||SSE4a||USD 121|
|Core i3-530||2||2.93 GHz||Yes||Clarkdale||32 nm||73 W||1156||SSE4.1 + SSE 4.2||USD 115|
TDP stands for Thermal Design Power and tells us the maximum amount of heat the CPU can dissipate. The CPU cooler must be capable of dissipating at least this amount of heat.
The prices listed were researched at Newegg.com on the day we published this review.
In the table below, we compare the cache configuration of the two CPUs, while in the next table we compare the basic parameters of the video controller embedded in the Core i3 with the video controller present in the AMD 890GX chipset. More information about the Core i3 integrated video can be found here.
|CPU||L1 Cache||L2 Cache||L3 Cache|
|Athlon II X4 640||64 KB + 64 KB per core||512 KB per core||No|
|Core i3-530||32 KB + 32 KB per core||256 KB per core||4 MB|
|AMD 890GX||700 MHz||40||10.1|
|Core i3-530||733 MHz||12||10|
[nextpage title=”How We Tested”]During our benchmarking sessions, we used the configuration listed below. Between our benchmarking sessions the only variable was the CPU being tested and the motherboard, which had to be replaced to match the different CPU sockets.
- Motherboard (Socket AM3): ASUS M4A89GTD/USB3 (1456 BIOS)
- Motherboard (Socket LGA1156): Intel DH55TC (0036 BIOS)
- CPU Cooler: Manufacturer stock
- Memory: Two 1 GB Crucial CT12864BA1339 modules (DDR3-1333/PC3-10600, CL9, 1.5 V), configured at 1,333 MHz
- Hard Disk Drive: Western Digital Caviar Black 1 TB (WD1001FALS, SATA-300, 7,200 rpm, 32 MB buffer)
- Video Card: HIS Radeon HD 5670 IceQ
- Video Monitor: Samsung Syncmaster 932BW
- Power Supply: OCZ StealthXStream 400 W
- Optical Drive: Lite-On LH-20A1L
Operating System Configuration
- Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
- Video resolution: 1440×900 60 Hz
- AMD chipset driver version: 8.700 (3.0.762.0)
- Intel video driver version: 184.108.40.2061
- Intel chipset driver version: 220.127.116.117
- PCMark Vantage Professional 1.0.2
- VirtualDub 1.9.5 + MPEG-2 Plugin 3.1 + DivX 6.8.5
- Adobe Photoshop CS4 Extended + GamingHeaven Photoshop Benchmark V3
- Adobe After Effects CS4
- WinRAR 3.92
- Cinebench 11.5
- Call of Duty 4 – Patch 1.7
- Far Cry 2 – Patch 1.03
We adopted a 3% error margin; thus, differences below 3% cannot be considered relevant. In other words, products with a performance difference below 3% should be considered as having similar performance.
[nextpage title=”PCMark Vantage”]
PCMark Vantage simulates the use of real-world applications and gives scores
for the following categories:
- TV and Movies
For a detailed description of each one of these tests, please download and read the PCMark Vantage Reviewer’s Guide.
You can see the results for each category below. We are not going to compare the results for the Memories and HDD suites.
Comparing the results achieved using the on-board video, the Core i3-530 and the Athlon II X4 640 achieved the same overall performance level. When we installed a Radeon HD 5670, however, the Core i3-530 was 5% faster than the Athlon II X4 640 with the same video card installed.
On the TV and Movies benchmark using the integrated video, the Athlon II X4 640 was 9% faster than the Core i3-530. When we installed a Radeon HD 5670 video card, the Athlon II X4 640 was 10% faster than the Core i3-530.
On the Gaming set with the on-board video enabled, the Core i3-530 was 5% faster than the Athlon II X4 640. Installing a Radeon HD 5670 made the Core i3-530 to be 9% faster than the Athlon II X4 640.
On the Music benchmark with the on-board video enabled, both CPUs achieved the same performance level. Installing a Radeon HD 5670 didn’t change the result.
On the Communications tests with on-board video enabled, the two CPUs achieved the same performance level. Installing a Radeon HD 5670 didn’t change the result.
And finally, on the Productivity benchmark with the integrated video enabled, the Core i3-530 was 7% faster than the Athlon II X4 640. We saw the same performance difference after installing a Radeon HD 5670.
[nextpage title=”VirtualDub + DivX”]With VirtualDub we converted a full-length DVD movie to DivX format and saw how long it took for this conversion to be completed. The DivX codec is capable of recognizing and using not only more than one CPU (i.e., more than one core), but also the SSE4 instruction set (feature available only on the reviewed Intel processor).
The movie we chose to convert was Star Trek – The Motion Picture: Director’s Cut. We copied the movie to our hard disk drive with no compression, so the final original file on our HDD was 6.79 GB. After compressing it with DivX, the final file was only 767.40 MB, which is quite remarkable.
The results below are given in seconds, so the lower the better.
On the DivX conversion using the CPU or motherboard integrated graphics, the Athlon II X4 640 was 16% faster than the Core i3-530, showing us that having more “real” cores is more important than having the SSE4 instruction set in this particular application.
When we installed a Radeon HD 5670 on both systems, the performance difference dropped a little bit, but the Athlon II X4 640 was still 14% faster than the Core i3-530.
[nextpage title=”Photoshop CS4″]
The best way to measure performance is by using real programs. The problem, though, is creating a methodology using real software that provides accurate results. For Photoshop CS4, there is a methodology created by the folks at GamingHeaven that is very accurate. Their script applies a series of 15 filters to a sample image, and we wrote down the time taken for each filter to run. At the end, we have the results for each individual filter and we simply add them up to give the total time taken to run the 15 filters from the GamingHeaven batch. The results below are given in seconds, so the lower the number the better.
On Photoshop CS4, using the CPU or the motherboard integrated graphics enabled, the Core i3-530 was 16% faster than the Athlon II X4 640. Adding a Radeon HD 5670 to both systems didn’t change the results, and the Core i3-530 was still 16% faster than the Athlon II X4 640.
[nextpage title=”After Effects CS4″]
After Effects is a very well-known program for video post-production that is used to add animation and visual effects in videos. To evaluate the performance of each CPU running this program, we ran a workload consisting of 25 compositions that applied several filters and effects to a variety of input file types such as PSD (Photoshop), AI (Illustrator), EPS, and TIF. After each filter was applied, the composition was rendered to an uncompressed AVI file with the same resolution as the input files. The results below are the time each CPU took to finish the whole batch, given in seconds, so the lower the number the better.
On After Effects CS4 both CPUs achieved the same performance level, as you can see in the graph above.
We measured the time each CPU took to compress five high-resolution 48-bit uncompressed TIF images, each one with around 70 MB, to RAR format with the po
pular WinRAR application. The results below are given in seconds, so the lower the number the better.
On file compression using WinRAR with the integrated video enabled, both CPUs achieve the same performance. But curiously, when we installed a Radeon HD 5670 video card, the Core i3-530 performance improved and the Athlon II X4 640 performance decreased, making the Core i3-530 to be 7% faster than the Athlon II X4 640.
[nextpage title=”Cinebench 11.5″]Cinebench 11.5 is based on the 3D software, Cinema 4d. It is very useful in measuring the performance gain given by having more than one CPU installed on the system when rendering heavy 3D images. Rendering is one area in which having more than one CPU helps considerably, because usually, rendering software recognizes several CPUs. (Cinebench, for instance, can use up to 16 CPUs.)
Since we were interested in measuring the rendering performance, we ran the test called “Rendering x CPUs,” which renders a “heavy” sample image using all available CPUs (or cores – either real or virtual, as on CPUs with Hyper-Threading technology, each core is recognized as two cores by the operating system) to speed up the process.
On Cinebench with the integrated video enabled, the Athlon II X4 640 was 36% faster than the Core i3-530. This result was already expected, since for 3D rendering having “real” CPU cores is the most important thing to improve performance. Installing a "real" video card didn’t impact the results.
[nextpage title=”Call of Duty 4″]
Call of Duty 4 is a DirectX 9 game implementing high-dynamic range (HDR) and its own physics engine, which is used to calculate how objects interact. For example, if you shoot, what exactly will happen to the object when the bullet hits it? Will it break? Will it move? Will the bullet bounce back? It gives a more realistic experience to the user.
We ran this game at 1440×900 resolution, disabling anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering and setting texture quality to the minimum. We used the game internal benchmarking feature, running a demo provided by NVIDIA called wetwork. We are putting this demo for downloading here if you want to run your own benchmarks. The game was updated to version 1.7. We ran this test five times, discarding the lowest and the highest scores. The results below are an arithmetic average of the three remaining values, given in frames per second (FPS).
The Core i3-530 integrated video processor proved to be 41% faster than the video processor provided by the AMD 890GX chipset. However, the number of frames per second achieved was very low even with all image quality settings reduced to their minimum values, and therefore it is almost impossible to play this game with integrated video solutions.
When we installed a “real” video card (Radeon HD 5670), the Core i3-530 was a tiny bit faster (4%) than the Athlon II X4 640.
[nextpage title=”Far Cry 2″]
Far Cry 2 is based on an entirely new game engine called Dunia, which is DirectX 10 when played under Windows 7 or Windows Vista with a DirectX 10-compatible video card. We used the benchmarking utility that comes with this game, setting video resolution to 1440 x 900 and configuring image quality settings to their minimum values. We ran the “Ranch Long” demo and the results below are expressed in frames per second.
With the integrated graphics engine enabled, both processors achieved the same performance level. As you can see the number of frames per second was again too low for us to consider this game “playable” using integrated video solutions.
When we install our Radeon HD 5670, the Core i3-530 was a tiny bit (4%) faster than the Athlon II 640.
The Core i3-530 and the Athlon II 640 proved to have around the same overall performance level, making the decision of which CPU to buy purely a decision of which brand you like the most, if you are an average user.
However, there were some specific scenarios that deserve reconsideration of the above statement. If you run professional applications that can recognize and use more than two CPU cores, the Athlon II X4 640 is a better option. Even though the Core i3-530 can simulate two extra cores through the use of the Hyper-Threading technology, CPU-intensive programs will run faster on CPUs with “real” cores: the Athlon II X4 640 crushed the Core i3-530 in 3D rendering (36% faster on Cinebench) and provided a pretty decent advantage on DivX conversion (14% faster on VirtualDub using DivX codec).
On the other hand, the integrated video present in the Core i3-530 processor was much faster than the integrated video provided by the AMD 890GX chipset, 41% on Call of Duty 4. But don’t get excited: with only 19 frames per second with all image quality settings configured at their lowest values, it will be very unlikely that you will play games with the integrated video available in this processor (or, let’s be honest, with any kind of integrated video). But on FarCry 2, both integrated video solutions achieved the same performance level.
Playing these games using a real video card (we used a Radeon HD 5670) gave a tiny advantage to the Core i3-530, but with only a four-percent performance difference between the two benchmarked CPUs, we are more inclined to say that both achieved the same performance level.