Dual-core microprocessors are the flavor of the day, and AMD has hit the market running. Its new Athlon 64 X2 chip is targeted squarely at computer prosumers and power users (rather than gaming/entertainment fans). One of the first vendors out of the gate with an Athlon 64 X2 4200+ dual core processor system is Cyberpower, with its new Ultra Workstation 3000.
If you've been following the story, you've probably heard most pundits laud the fact that the Athlon 64 X2 uses existing 939-pin socket motherboards, so that those motherboards should be able to run the X2 with no more than a BIOS upgrade. You've probably also heard them note that the Athlon 64 X2 is an "elegant" design compared to Intel's dual-core setup.
Elegance, in this instance, means the Athlon 64 X2 has an integrated memory controller rather than one that's elsewhere on the motherboard. Shorter distances mean faster responses. Another feature that's attracted attention is AMD's processor crossbar -- an item that's been present on single-core Athlon 64s for a while now, and has which allowed AMD to simply add another core without the need to extensively rework the processor's external I/O architecture. Elegant, yes. But can you run a race in an evening gown?
Getting Down To Business
Keeping AMD's non-gaming fiat in mind, Cyberpower equipped its Ultra Workstation 3000 with an Athlon 64 X2 4200+, an entry-level 2.2GHz X2 processor with 512MB of L2 cache per core. It's mated to 1GB of dual-channel DDR400 memory, which matches the bus speed. The platform is an ASUS A8N-E motherboard. Compatible CPUs for this board are listed on ASUS Web site as "Socket 939 AMD Athlon 64FX / Athlon 64 AMD64 architecture." No mention is made of X2 compatibility; however, ASUS did update the original BIOS with version 1004, released May 17, 2005, presumably for that purpose.
Storage duties are handled by two 250GB Maxtor SATA 150 drives in a RAID 0 configuration that results in a 500GB virtual volume. Graphics come from a EVGA 6800GT PCI-e graphics card with 256MB. A dual layer DVD burner. a separate DVD-ROM drive, a 6-in-1 media reader, and a 70-watt, six-piece, Logitech 5.1 speaker system complete the system.
There are really two technology upgrades here. The first, of course, is the dual-core X2. The other is Windows XP Professional x64 Edition. In order to test these two advances, I chose the COSBI OpenSourceMark benchmarking tool. It's a synthetic test that doesn't rely on real-world applications, but rather uses a prolonged series of trials that exercise the CPU, memory, graphics, and, to a limited extent, the disk subsystems. The test is designed to provide multiple threads when more than one real or virtual processor is detected.
For my first baseline system, I used a home-built Pentium 4 640 system, with a similar graphics card and a RAID 0 hard drive setup. Just to be unfair, the Pentium 4 640 (normally clocked at 3.2GHz) was cranked up a bit by increasing the front side bus to 222MHz, resulting in a 3.559GHz-rated CPU speed. For a second comparison system, I added an Athlon 64 3800+ clocked at 2.405GHz.
The results? The Pentium 4 640 scored an OSMark of 1280, the Athlon 64 3800 came in with an OSMark of 1,463, and the the Athlon 64 X2, clocked at 2.211GHz, punched the OSMark result out to 1,748. In other words, to say that the Ultra Workstation 3000 is wicked fast would not be an understatement -- at least, according to the benchmark.
The Real World
To give the system a more practical workout, I tried it with Ulead's VideoStudeo 9.0, a video editing and rendering package. Six video clips, totaling 42 minutes and 45 seconds in length, were selected from 1 hour and 7 minutes of mpeg video.
The first task extracted the clips from the original and rendered them (without displaying the rendering as it occurs) into a separate mpeg video with the same parameters as the original file. The Pentium 4 640 required 301 seconds to finish. The Athlon 64 3800+ was a bit faster at 271 seconds. The X2 breezed through in 195 seconds.
This is definitely impressive. However, a final rendering can have different parameters than the original video -- when VideoStudio is working in that mode, it displays the video as it renders it. This time around, the Pentium 4 640 took 32 minutes and 37 seconds to finish, while the Athlon 64 3800+ needed 47 minutes and 16 seconds. The X2 was actually a tad actually slower than its sibling Athlon at 48 minutes, 44 seconds. Sending the video data to the graphics card for display apparently caused a bottleneck.
There are several possibilities as to what caused the slowdown. For example, as when Windows evolved from ME to XP, drivers are most likely an issue. Although Cyberpower shipped the system with the latest Windows 64 graphics drivers, a look at nVidia's Web site shows that they date back at the middle of February, 2005. As happened with the ME to XP transition, performance should increase markedly as the graphics drivers evolve.
Second, and perhaps more important, this is an upgraded BIOS meant to accommodate the X2 on a motherboard for which it was not originally compatible. It may take several BIOS updates before things settle down. ASUS had, in fact, posted yet another BIOS upgrade, beta version 1005, on May 27 -- unfortunately too late to be incorporated into this review. The new update should further enhance overall performance, although it may take one or more additional upgrades to get it right.
All that being said, the Ultra Workstation 3000 is, overall, a stellar performer. Along with its one-year onsite warranty, Cyberpower also offers toll-free 24/7 tech support, so you won't be left alone as upgrades for the system become available.
The main question is still: Is the upgrade to the dual-core AMD X2 worth the extra cost? Aside from the bottleneck I experienced when I ran VideoStudio in final rendering mode, the new chip is truly fast. However, like all bleeding-edge technologies, AMD's new chip won't really come into its own until the hardware and software that it works with can be made totally compatible. For some users, this is will be a convincing reason to wait for the X2 environment to mature.
Ultra Workstation 3000