Part II: CPU's, Motherboards, and RAM (Back to Part I / Ahead to Part III)
December 10, 2014
In the previous article we looked at the beginnings of a custom-built system. I also talked about pre-fab systems.
Now it's time to talk about CPU's, motherboards, and RAM.
Some people will prefer the Intel Core i5 3570K or a Core i7 4790K processor and a suitable motherboard.
In some benchmarks, these CPU's pull ahead of the AMD offerings. The Core i7 is a tough one to beat. Now that Intel has the new Core i7 "Haswell" chips that work with DDR4, the performance is even better.
I'm an AMD fan, though, because they offer great performance for the money. In some applications they actually do better than the Intel chips. For certain uses, they do much better. (The newest AMD "Piledriver" cores outperform Intel in many benchmarks, including image editing.)
Let's see what kinds of hardware we might want to use.
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In This Article'07 Tech In 2015
Level 2 Cache Memory
Motherboards & RAM for Athlon 64 X2
The Phenom II
Motherboards & RAM for Phenom II / FX
'07 Tech In 2015
Computer tech has been around long enough that some of the nearly decade-old CPU's are still highly capable. In fact, that period from 2005 to 2007 was special.
Just ten years before that, we were using Pentium 1's with a clock speed of 166 megahertz.
A mere four to five years later (2000 or '01), we had Athlon T-Birds that were pushing 1 gigahertz.
By late 2005 or early '06, we had actual clock speeds of 2.3 gigahertz. With dual cores.
By February 2007, the dual-core Athlon 64 X2 6000+ hit the market, at 3.0 GHz.
By early 2009. the clock speeds were up above 3 GHz. With quad cores.
The dual-core CPU's from 2005 through '07 are still good enough for many 3D games, and good enough for a lot of image editing.
The quad-cores from '09 are even better.
Performance BottlenecksIn gaming, your biggest performance bottleneck could be anywhere in the system, but often it's the video card.
In web browsing, your Internet connection is often a bottleneck. The big companies have increasingly decided to transmit data when you didn't request it. They make web pages that are constantly loading data and refreshing content, even when you don't want them to.
These practices eat up a lot of bandwidth and waste a lot of time. Here, it wouldn't matter quite so much if you had 2005 tech or 2014 tech. That said, I've noticed that very slow systems with only 1 GB of RAM tend to hiccup more in these situations.
For image editing, hard drive speed and RAM are probably the two biggest bottlenecks you're likely to encounter. If you have enough RAM, the hard drive is no longer as much of an issue. That's because it doesn't have to swap data between the RAM and the hard drive as often.
In other words, unless you're a serious gamer, you might be able to use 2007 tech in 2015 for image editing.
Maybe even 2005 tech.
Let's talk about the X2.
The Athlon 64 X2 was AMD's first dual-core processor.
A 64-bit processor with two cores was sort of a curiosity at the time. Not many pieces of software even supported this.
Well, it just so happens that the Athlon 64 X2 might still be a contender if you're looking for a budget system today.
There are a lot of AMD 64 X2's kicking around on the used market. What used to be a $200-to-$400-something processor can now be had for ten to twenty bucks. Maybe thirty or forty, if you buy one of the faster models. For that price, though, you can often get one with the fan and heatsink included.
For most kinds of image editing, an AMD Athlon X2 4000+ and 8GB of RAM will probably do better than a brand-new CPU and 2 GB of RAM.
Level 2 Cache Memory
The Level 2 cache size affects how quickly a CPU can do certain types of operations.
Fast Fourier transforms (FFT's) would be a good example of something that speeds up with a larger L2 cache. That might not be an everyday thing you would use, although GIMP does have an FFT plugin for removing certain types of noise. (I think you can access this in G'MIC).
Image editing can speed up more or less from L2 cache, but it depends on the specific operation. If you use a lot of different filters, plugins, and transforms, chances are you'll benefit from a larger L2 cache.
Some of the Athlon 64 X2's have 512-kilobyte L2 caches. That's per core (i.e., 512K times 2).
A few models have 1024-kilobyte (i.e., 1 GB) L2 caches per core. These are better for image editing.
In the next section, "Identifying Cores", we'll see how to tell them apart.
One final note about L2 cache. For a dual-core CPU, sometimes you'll see the total L2 cache size. That creates some confusion. 1024K might mean 1024K total (i.e., 512K times 2), or 1024K per core. That's why it's more important to know the exact clock speed, so you can figure it out yourself.
Newer processors have L3 cache as well as L2, but I've found that if you're not working with huge files, a CPU with a good-sized L2 cache is plenty.
Of course, all of this depends on what you consider to be "fast" when working on photos.
AMD made some X2's called "Business Class".
Don't go out of your way to find one.
The only difference was a better warranty (now expired) and a guarantee that they would keep making the part for at least two years (also expired).
L2 Cache is still only 512K per core, not 1024.
Identifying X2 Cores
If you're buying from a seller who can tell you what core you're getting, then skip this section.
Look for the manufacture date. Any Athlon 64 X2 manufactured before December 2006 would be a Manchester, Toledo, or Windsor core. These were all 90-nanometer process. The Brisbane core hit the market in December of '06. This was a 65-nanometer core.
The Brisbane cores were more popular with gamers. The smaller transistor size meant better overclocking. The Brisbane-core chips all had 512K of L2 cache per core.
Only certain of the Toledo and Windsor chips had 1024K per core. For image editing, I'd actually go for these.
How to tell which core?
If you have the box, it's easy. If not, look at the codes laser-printed on the CPU. They look like serial numbers. Pay attention to the first one. Now, cross-reference with http://www.amdgeeks.net/processors.
Here's another way: find the actual clock speed. I don't mean "4200+", "5000+", etc. I mean the actual CPU frequency in MHz or GHz. If it has an odd-numbered clock speed, it cannot have 1024K per core. I won't say AMD never made such a thing, but I don't know of any.
Even-numbered clock speeds don't mean as much, unless you can verify it's a Toledo or Windsor core.
Best bet: if you have the CPU in a running system, use a program to tell you the CPU specs. If you use Linux, simply type :
This should tell you:
- Actual clock speed
- L2 cache size (per core)
- Number of cores
- Model number
Motherboards & RAM for Athlon 64 X2
Socket AM2 was designed to handle the original AMD Athlon 64, the Sempron, and the Athlon 64 X2 processor. Many of the Socket AM2 motherboards could handle up to 8GB of RAM. Later ones could handle up to 16GB.
By today's standards, 8GB is still pretty good. A lot of systems are still shipping with only 4GB of RAM. Actually, many people are still using 32-bit versions of Windows that can't even address more than 4GB of RAM. (Of those 4 GB, the operating system leaves only 3-something of usable RAM).
With image editing, the greatest performance improvements happen when increasing the RAM up to about 8 GB. Above 8GB, you'll start to notice less of a performance increase for most applications. It makes a difference, but it's not as dramatic. So if you can get a board that handles 8GB, that's good for most of what you'll do.
One of my favorite AM2 motherboards was the MSI K9N Neo V3. It was not a top-end gaming board, because it didn't have room for those gigantic double-width video cards or SLI, but for image editing it's fine.
I've always had good experience with MSI boards and have built a number of systems with them. The K9N series were always very stable, at least for me. A board like this might last you a good eight to ten years, if you have the right kind of surge protection.
Biostar motherboards for the Athlon X2 were also good performers. I'd go for the Biostar TA790 series. The TA790 supports up to 16GB of RAM. It will also work with the AMD Phenom II X4 processor if you want. (More about the Phenom II later.)
The Biostar TA890 series will work with Athlon 64 X2's, and Phenom II's all the way up through the X6 (see next section).
Avoid the Biostar TF7025 and GF7025's. The first one accepts only 4GB of RAM at most, and the second one has only two DIMM slots.
Biostar made really good AM2 boards with 550 and 560 series numbers, but they don't seem to be as common on the secondary market.
As for the RAM: Most of these boards will take DDR2 SDRAM, preferably 800MHz ("PC2-6400"). I would get low-density, non-ECC RAM in 2-gigabyte sticks. (AMD chipsets can also handle high-density RAM modules.)
The Athlon 64 X2 works only with DDR2 RAM, not DDR3.
If you want to use DDR3 RAM, you'll need a Phenom II processor and the right motherboard for it.
The Phenom IIThe original Phenom, introduced in late 2007, was something of a
flop. This was mainly due to a bug that caused some systems to
The AMD Phenom II was a whole 'nother story.
The first Phenom II in Socket AM2+ version was launched in late 2008. These could fit the same motherboards as the Athlon 64 X2. They were made for use with DDR2 RAM.
By early 2009, the first Socket-AM3 versions of the Phenom II were released. These were made to work with both DDR2 and DDR3 RAM.
AMD still lists the Phenom II as a current product. It gets a designation of "X3", "X4", etc., depending on the number of cores. A Phenom II X3 has 3 cores, and so on.
There are / were at least five different core models for the Phenom II. The chips had number designations. To make a long story short, skip anything with a series number less than 900. (The 840 and 850's are semi-OK; only problem is they have no L3 cache. )
The 900 series are quad-core CPU's with Level 3 cache memory. Any of these are good. That includes the 940, 960T, etc.
The 1000T series are hex-core CPU's with L3 cache. Any of these are good.
You can buy used Phenom II 940's through this link.
Get your Phenom II 960T through this link. Sometimes you can also find Phenom II 960T's through this link.
Better yet, pick up a Phenom II 965, which is 3.4 GHz. Get yours through this link.
(Buying your stuff through these allows me keep this website going. Your help is much appreciated.)
If I were building a new system in 2014-2015, I would still not hesitate to use one of these Phenom II processors. They may not be on the cutting edge of absolute top- top-speed, but they're not far behind it.
The FXWe've looked at the Athlon 64 X2 and the Phenom II processors.
AMD later introduced the FX series, which they also still make.
Some of the multi-core FX CPU's benchmark very well, but as always, it depends on what you're doing with the computer.
I actually lean toward the Phenom II 900 series as my favorite pick. They have physical cores, so when you see "quad core", they mean it.
The FX processors also have multiple cores, but they use fewer "modules". That means the cores have to share resources. Therefore I'm not sure I would call the FX a "true" quad-core, six-core, etc. That said, the FX will still support multithreading.
The FX4100 is actually not quite as good as most of the 900-series Phenom II's. Then again, it's not far behind for most applications, and in some it actually does better. At the time I write this, the FX4100 is available here. Quad-core, 3.6 GHz, Socket AM3+.
The higher-number FX chips (6000 and 8000 series) will start to pull away from the Phenom II four-core CPU's for many tasks.
For the same or maybe less money than an FX4100, you can get the AMD FX6300 six-core CPU here. Six-core 3.5 GHz, Socket AM3+.
The AMD FX6350 is even faster, and it doesn't cost that much more. (Get yours here.) Six-core, 3.9 GHz, Socket AM3+.
There are now even a couple of better choices in the FX series; we'll talk about these shortly.
Combine with a good Socket AM3+ motherboard, a good power supply, and maybe 8GB of DDR3 RAM, and you've got the core of a powerful image editing system. And gaming, if you want.
Motherboards & RAM for Phenom II / FX
I'm primarily into photo editing and multitasking, rather than gaming. But because I like MSI boards, I'd probably go for this one. It will accept any of the AM3 / AM3+ processors, including the Phenom II and the FX series.
Another good board is this one from ASUS. Either of these should be a good choice if you're building an FX or Phenom II system.
These newer mainboards have UEFI. You'll see that on more and more boards, because UEFI has a lot more capabilities. Right now, though, non-Windows operating systems are in a transition to UEFI, so it can be tricky to get them to install, especially if you are also running Windows 8. You could always disable UEFI and use the standard BIOS (depends on the board, though; eventually there will be boards with UEFI only.)
As mentioned in the first article, you will get the best system stability with a good power supply and a good surge protector.
And don't forget your wrist strap when building the computer.
Be extra careful in the winter. The air is very dry and the static electricity is worse. Unless you want to wreck your investment, keep the relative humidity up when building your system. I like this unit; our local store doesn't sell that one anymore, but I like it enough that I'd order it.
Just Tell Me What To Get!!
It depends on your budget.
That said, here's one major advantage of AMD processors. If you buy them discounted (which they usually are through this link), AMD's newest CPU's don't cost much more than the old ones. That's actually a good marketing strategy, because it encourages people to upgrade.
It seems to me that Intel's newest stuff is always very expensive. I haven't bought a brand-new Intel CPU since the Twentieth Century.
Now, there are people who don't care about the expense, because they like to be early adopters of new stuff. Nothing wrong with that, but I prefer AMD's pricing.
Just for fun, I priced out systems based on used AMD Phenom II X4's, and really you don't save that much money over the AMD FX 8350. If your image software can really use multi-cores, the 8350 is going to walk all over most anything that preceded it, and probably all over most Intel offerings, too. The FX 8370 is even better.
If I were building a new system now, I would prefer to go for an AMD FX-8370 Black. This (or the AMD FX-8350 Black) should outperform most of Intel's offerings for image editing and general multi-tasking. All the AMD "Black" processors are unlocked, meaning they are potentially overclockable.
If you want the cheapest (but still worthwhile), you could build a system with a used Athlon 64 X2 6000+, get two pairs of 2GB DDR2 RAM (through this link) for a total of 8GB, and get a motherboard through this link or this one. It will be reasonably good for almost anything you'll do with it.
If you're shopping for all your system parts at once, make sure to get a solid-state drive such as this one. This will greatly speed up your system's performance, even if you are using an older CPU such as the Athlon 64 X2. We'll talk more about hard drives in an upcoming article.
ConclusionAn AM2 board with an Athlon X2 would make you a passable system if you can find the parts. Most of the CPU's are dirt cheap because not as many people want dual-core anymore. The motherboards are also fairly inexpensive, because they have limited upgrade options.
If you can budget the purchase of an AM3+ board and CPU, this has more upgrade potential for a while. The newest AM3+ boards have BIOS / UEFI that supports AMD's fastest new eight-core CPU's.
No computer mainboard and CPU is truly "future-proof", but for image editing it could last ten years or more under the right circumstances.
In the third part of this series, we'll look at the hard drive, video card, and operating system.
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Building a Computer For Image Editing, Part 1
Building a Computer For Image Editing, Part 3
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