Review: AMD, Intel budget chipsets go head to head

AMD's 785G and Intel's P55 chipsets vie for dominance in the value PC market.

For years, Intel and AMD have been battling for predominance in the processor/chipset market. AMD's latest plan seems to be to push back on economic grounds -- to offer high-value budget chipsets targeted at the soon-to-be-released Windows 7 systems, and high-performance chipsets that are slightly slower, but much cheaper, than equivalent Intel products. And Intel is firing back.

AMD's new 785G chipset, introduced last month, is designed for the mainstream and budget desktop audience. The 785G ships with drivers designed specifically to work with Windows 7, and several motherboard manufacturers, including Asus, Gigabyte, ECW and MSI, are adopting the 785G chipset to deliver the next generation of motherboards.

AMD's goal was to compete with Intel's G41 chipset, the company's dominant chipset for the value PC market segment which launched in June 2008. But in this ever changing game of leap frog, Intel quickly came back with the introduction of the P55 chipset and the Core i5 family of CPUs.

Which offers the most bang for the buck? I decided to find out by pitting AMD's new 785G chipset against Intel's G41 and P55 chipsets. I also took a look separately at AMD's Phenom II, a high-performance processor that sacrifices a little of that performance to save some significant dollars.

AMD vs. Intel

When comparing based upon value, price is the determining factor. As a result, I wanted the AMD and Intel combos to be priced about the same.

For the AMD 785G chipset, I chose an Asus motherboard (model M4A785TD-M EVO). Asus' new board is designed for AM3 series processors and has a street price of just under $100, making it very affordable.

To test Intel's G41 chipset, I chose a Gigabyte GA-G41M-ES2H motherboard for comparison, which has a street price of around $80.

To test Intel's P55 chipset, I used the Intel Desktop Board DP55KG, which was the only P55 board available at launch time. The DP55KG is currently available for $210-$240, making it more expensive than the other boards tested here. Lower cost boards using the chipset are set to arrive within a month or so from several manufacturers such as Asus, MSI, DFI and Gigabyte, with street prices expected to be well under $150.

I wanted to compare the three chipsets based upon a dollar-for-dollar basis, so I needed to pick three inexpensive CPUs to keep the pricing consistent. On the AMD side I went with an AMD Athlon II X2 Dual Core processor (3GHz, 2MB L2 cache, 2000MHz bus, socket AM3), which has a street price of around $75. For the Intel G41 test, I chose an Intel Core i5-750 (2.66GHz, 8MB L3 cache, socket LGA1156, 1333MHz bus) which at launch had a street price of about $200. This meant that the P55 chipset CPU/notherboard combo would currently cost about $450, two and a half times more expensive than the AMD 785G and Intel G41 setups.

What's more, the Intel P55 chipset motherboards do not include integrated video. For a video card, I wound up choosing an Asus EAH4350 video card, which has a street price of about $40.

AMD's 785G chipset

The 785G offers a lot of features when incorporated with the Asus motherboard. First and foremost, the 785G chipset provides integrated video via the relatively powerful ATI Radeon HD 4200 GPU, along with 128MB of SidePort memory, which helps to increase performance. That's important, because traditionally most integrated graphics solutions used slower shared system memory to function, which meant less memory was available for your operating system and programs.

Other features include Asus's Express Gate instant-on OS (which is a rebranded version of DeviceVM's Splashtop) as well as four DDR3-1800 memory slots and one PCI-Express x16 slot. Other niceties include one eSATA and five SATA 3.0 ports; Gigabit Ethernet; 7.1 channel audio; D-sub, DVI and HDMI outputs; and an Energy Processing Unit (EPU) for higher energy efficiency.

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