The Athlon II family is AMD’s affordable range, nestling between the lightweight Sempron series and high-end Phenom II chips. Its core design is the same as the Phenom II, the main difference being the lack of L3 cache RAM, coupled with a slightly lower spread of clock speeds (all of them are locked to discourage overclocking).
That means the Athlon IIs have all the same features as AMD’s top-end chips: they’re 64-bit compatible and all of them support hardware-assisted virtualisation. They’re also available in dual-, triple- and quad-core designs.
They’re not exactly cutting-edge technology, however. The core designs have been knocking around since 2009 and still use a 45nm manufacturing process. That means they’ll typically consume more power than Intel’s 32nm models for a given level of performance, and they’ll generate more heat, limiting the speeds at which they can run. The Athlon II also lacks onboard graphics, but this isn’t a huge limitation since there are dozens of AMD motherboards on the market that feature GPUs integrated into the chipset.
Despite its age, the Athlon II series is capable enough for everyday computing. With responsiveness scores of 0.8 and upwards in our benchmarks, these chips can still deliver a snappy Windows experience. Performance in the Media component of our benchmarks is less impressive, but the fastest quad-core model managed to process our audio files, photographs and home videos at two-thirds of the speed of a state-of-the-art Intel Core i7 processor.
The Athlon II’s weakness is multitasking. With no shared L3 cache, these chips have limited juggling capabilities. Adding extra cores helps, but not as much as you’d hope: across these tests, the quad-core models proved only about 50% faster than the dual-core models.
Click to enlarge
Which one should you buy?
The Athlon series is getting long in the tooth and probably won’t be around for much longer. AMD is due to debut its new Bulldozer core this summer, which will surely spell the end of the road for the Athlon II and Phenom II series.
But, if you’re building a lightweight PC for web browsing and office tasks, the Athlon series deserves to be considered. Although these chips don’t come near the levels of performance offered by Intel’s mainstream models, they’re much cheaper: compatible motherboards can be found for less than $50.
The standout in the range is the low-end Athlon II X2 250, a dual-core model that offers perfectly acceptable Windows performance, along with basic media processing capabilities, for only $69. For bang per buck, it’s the best deal of any processor on the market. If you crave a little more power, you can cheaply move up to a faster chip, but there isn’t much point: the tiny difference in effective performance won’t be noticeable in the sort of simple tasks to which an Athlon II is suited.
A better way to gain a little headroom is to move up to the Athlon II X3 445, which adds a third core but has disappeared from retail stores in recent times. That doesn’t do anything for general responsiveness in Windows, but it provides a boost of about 10% to media performance and 30% to multitasking performance.
The quad-core Athlon II X4 processors are a less appealing proposition. Although still cheap, they lack the pocket-money appeal of cheaper models. If you’re looking to invest in a quad-core CPU, the Athlon series as a whole is an inappropriate choice.