The Athlon 64 3000+ has been released, and it is available for as low as $240.
Should you buy one?
The answer to that question is another question. Do you want an expensive quick fling, or do you want a (fairly) long-term relationship.
A Quick Fling
This Athlon 64 is going to be obsoleted fairly quickly. AMD looks like it plans to move away from socket 754 to socket 939 for mainstream systems in 2004, leaving socket 754 for its value line.
This is probably because the Athlon 64 platform is a paradox: a high-performance engine with small fuel lines. If you want a performance system, especially for gaming, you need dual-channel memory. If you don’t have it, that’s a performance anchor that will become heavier and heavier as time goes on.
If performance isn’t that important to you, or you do things that don’t really require memory bandwidth, the Athlon 64 is overkill (at least given the price for the processor).
Perhaps more importantly, a generational shift in motherboards is imminent. This will consist of the following:
Intel will implement the first three with its next-generation chipset, and complete the transition at the end of 2004 with its “Bigwater” motherboard for Tejas.
AMD looks like it will take smaller steps. The next generation of Hammer mobos will implement the first two changes. Memory will probably follow sometime in 2005, and we’ll just have to see about form factor.
Buy an Athlon 64 now, and you miss out on all of this. On the other hand, missing out on all of this means you may be able to recycle more of your current system (i.e., memory and video card), thus reducing your upgrade cost.
Then again, too, an overclocked Athlon 64 is also likely to generally do a little bit better than the average overclocked PIV system. Depending on how Prescott does and when socket 939 shows up, you’ll have a couple to a few more months of glory. But that’s it.
The (Fairly) Long-Term Relationship
Socket 939 boards should be out and plentiful within the next six months. That will give you dual-channel memory, and will also give you any performance tweaks those building a desktop board from scratch can muster over server-oriented socket 940 boards. (We strongly suspect there will be a bigger performance gap between socket 939 and 754 than currently exists between sockets 940/754.)
Along with them ought to come Newcastle chips. The smaller cache will reduce performance, perhaps 5% for non-office use, but that loss should be more than compensated by the dual-channel memory/mobo tweaks.
More importantly, it looks very likely at this point that socket 939 boards will accommodate future 90nm CPUs with just a BIOS change, giving socket 939 buyers more of an upgrade option more quickly than with socket 754 (where 90nm chips will be delayed, and may or may not include AMD64).
AMD’s decision to hold off on DDR2 until 2005, the introduction of a (presumably cheaper) Newcastle, and the delay in 90nm processors shifts the optimal time to make a platform shift from socket A from later to sooner. Those who need to get more than a year’s mileage from a new platform should probably buy a socket 939 Newcastle system fairly early (prices and platform stability permitting), figure a 90nm processor upgrade somewhere down the road, then tentatively plan the next jump to be the K9.
Those more patient can of course wait, but we may not see an affordable 90nm Hammer until early 2005, and that will be just too long to wait for many.
Newcastle systems will cost a bit more than socket 754 systems, but the cost item that will get most people’s attention is a PCI Express video card. We’ll probably see hybrid systems and workarounds that will continue to allow the use of an AGP card, but on the whole, at this point in time, if you want a hot video card, it probably would be better to spend your money on the next big jump.
I doubt that initially PCI Express cards will be any better than AGP cards, but that’s not why you would be buying the card. You’re buying the card that will work in your machine without any potentially-perfomance reducing kludges to get it to work.
Another factor that may or may not come into play is the ability to change the multiplier upward on a socket 939 chip. You can with an FX. You can’t with an Athlon 64. We don’t know if you’ll be able to that with an FX Newcastle, but when it’s “don’t know” vs. “definitely no,” you have to lean to the first, since you’ll be no worse off no matter what.