AMD’s Athlon 64 3400+: Death of the FX-51

What a weird way to end the year; at the beginning of 2003 we expected AMD to fall short of clock expectations and for Intel to trample all over the Athlon 64 with Prescott. With 2004, still in its infancy, being a meager 6 days old we know that the outcome of the processor wars of last year was not as expected. AMD surprised us all with a far more competitive Athlon 64 launch than we had originally expected, and Prescott didn’t exactly make it out the gates.

Instead we were left with a new class of processors with the Athlon 64 FX and the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition; cash cow CPUs marketed for our community but priced well above our comfort levels. Granted if you look back at the $1000+ price tag the Pentium II had upon its release a $700 CPU today isn’t asking too much, but we’ve grown far too accustomed to sub-$200 CPU prices for that to work.

With just under three-and-a-half months under AMD’s 64-bit belt, we’re ready for the first speed bump for the Athlon 64 line.

You’ll remember from our initial coverage that the major difference between the Athlon 64 and the Athlon 64 FX that the latter boasts a 128-bit memory controller as opposed to the 64-bit interface of the regular 64. The only other differences (other than price) were that the Athlon 64 FX was available at 2.2GHz (compared to the fastest 2.0GHz 64 offering) and the FX ships without a multiplier lock. With today’s launch, the focus is further shifted away from the pricey FX and onto the latest reason not to buy AMD’s most expensive CPU – the Athlon 64 3400+.

Now boasting a 2.2GHz clock, equaling that of the flagship FX51, the Athlon 64 has become an even more powerful force to reckon with. With a 10% increase in clock speed, can AMD begin to eat into Intel’s lead in encoding/content creation applications? Let’s find out…

A Diamond in the Rough
When we first looked at the Athlon 64 and FX we realized that the performance difference between the two was negligible at best, but what truly sealed the fate of the Athlon 64 FX in our eyes was the quiet release of the Athlon 64 3000+ based on AMD’s Newcastle core.

Newcastle is the mainstream successor to Claw Hammer, what all current Athlon 64s are based on right now. The only difference between Newcastle and Claw Hammer is that Newcastle has half the L2 cache, totaling 512KB instead of the original 1MB L2 that AMD launched. Why AMD would introduce the Athlon 64 with a 1MB L2 only to scale it back a couple of months later is anyone’s guess. Perhaps AMD felt that it would be necessary to compete with Prescott or perhaps there were design issues with getting it to market in time, needless to say that slowly but surely all Athlon 64’s will be Newcastle derived.

You caught a glimpse of the performance of the Athlon 64 3000+ in our earlier preview, but you will get a full taste of the price-effective performance that Newcastle offers in this review. Performance close to the Athlon 64 3200+ (which was close to the Athlon 64 FX51) at about half the price can’t really be beat, and you’ll surely see that here.

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