Saturday, June 18, 2005

More Thoughts on Dual Core Systems

In my previous article "The Dual Cores Are Here" I looked at the cost of upgrading one of my home systems from an Athlon XP to a dual-core system. I wanted to keep as much of the existing system as possible, since the technology in a lot of the pieces were still reasonably current. The system I wanted to upgrade had been built, from scratch, 2 1/2 years ago and I had been upgrading bits on it since. I decided, based solely on price, that I could spend about $800 for a new Intel Pentium D, motherboard (955 chipset), 1GB of DDR2 667, and a mid-range PCI Express video card. I thought that was a reasonable decision until I read X-bit labs review on the Intel Pentium D 820.

A lot of the hardware sites lavish gobs of verbiage and innumerable tests in order to determine the merits of today's PC technology, such as processors and motherboards. The X-bit article has all of that, including attempts to overclock the processor as well as all the frame-per-second speeds possible with today's popular games. But what X-bit also checked, which I have not seen before now, is an analysis of the 820's power consumption. And that's when I sat up and paid attention.

The article compared the 820 with two Athlon 64 single core processors - the 3200+ and the 3500+, both of them Venice core processors. At idle, the 820 D consumed 50 watts to the 3500+'s 12 watts, while at full load the 820D consumed 131 watts to the 3500+'s 46 watts. That's right. The Intel 820 D, running at 2.8 GHz, consumed 3 to 4 times as much power as the Athlon 64. Yes, we are comparing a dual core Intel chip to the single core AMD chip. But, if we (reasonably) say that the dual core Athlon will consume twice as much power as the single core, then the Athlon 64 will still consume, on average, 50% less power than the Intel.

Why am I concerned about power consumption? Let me count the ways.
  1. Heat. You need to dump heat out of the box. Big sources of heat in today's systems are the processor, the video card, the hard drives (specifically SATA), and the mother board. I try to stay away from video cards that require that extra power connector on the edge, although I do own one, an ATI 9700 Pro purchased in a moment of weakness.
  2. Fans. My big Athlon XP box has no less than nine (9) fans: four on the case, two on the power supply, one on the motherboard north bridge chip (nForce2), one on the video card (ATi 9700 Pro), and the big one on the CPU itself. Fans make noise if they're moving fast. I've got the system box set up so that it's off to the side and unobstructed and I have nothing overclocked so that the fans are all spinning at their lowest settings. As a consequence the system is fairly quiet, but it is by no means silent.
  3. Stability and longevity. I keep my system up for days or weeks at a time. It only reboots when I change the operating system or update it (for Windows, it's an update, and for Linux, it's a new kernel), or if Florida Flash and Flicker decides to take a vacation (think of the Florida 2004 hurricane season). Heat kills stability and longevity. Parts that run hot crash a lot and die an early death. Furthermore, I do not overclock.
  4. Cost. The more power you consume, the more you pay every month to the power company. And over time it does add up.
Right now my Athlon XP 3200+ dumps about 63 watts. That's entirely too much for my tastes, but it's still lower than an equivalent Pentium 4, especially the 90 nm Prescott cores. And keep in mind that my older Athlon XP is on 130 nm geometry. AMD showed, unlike Intel, that going to 90 nm would drop the power consumption (all else, especially frequency, being equal). AMD's Venice core chips have been talked about all over the web for their low running temperatures.

Looks like I'm going to wait a little longer. I don't know why Newegg only got in two of the Athlon 64 X2 chips, or why they only got the OEM chips. I'd prefer a boxed chip because you do get a decent chip cooler and it has a 3 year warranty vs. the OEM chip's 1 year warranty. I do want to make a decision, though. Time is flying by, and it seems I've got some money burning a hole in my pocket.

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