Intel releases its long awaited Pentium 4 today to a surprise: PC WorldBench tests suggest you’ll be initially served every bit as well, if not better, by older Pentium IIIs and Advanced Micro Devices Athlons.
Most major desktop vendors are shipping systems that implement the P4, which was known by its former code name, Willamette. The chip is coming out this week at speeds of 1.4 and 1.5 GHz . With the release, Intel meets its fourth-quarter target.
Now that PCWorld.com has tested the P4 and looked into its design, it is clear the CPU was made to fit Intel’s vision of a computing future heavy with 3D graphics, as well as audio and video streaming–a “visual Internet,” to use Intel’s expression.
That is an exciting future, perhaps, but in the here and now most of us have different needs.
P4 Performs Best on Conversions, Graphics
In PCWorld.com tests, the new chip barely keeps pace with the 1-GHz PIIIs used for comparison, and it even fell behind these older systems on some measures. Matched against a 1.2-GHz Athlon PC with Double Data Rate RAM, the P4 fares worse.
The P4 test systems were a Dell Dimension 8100, a Gateway Performance 1500, and an IBM NetVista A60I. All the tested PCs have 256MB of memory and run Microsoft Windows Millennium. All P4 and Athlon systems tested also have hard disks of 31GB or more and NVidia GeForce2-based graphics cards.
The 1.2-GHz Athlon system tested, the Micron Millennia Max XP, scores 180 on our PC WorldBench 2000 suite of office-application tests and surpassed the top-performing P4, the Gateway Performance 1500, by about 10 percent. One of the 1-GHz PIII units, the Gateway Performance 1000, also beat all three P4s, though just by a nose.
Doubling the memory to 256MB on an 800-MHz PIII system PCWorld.com previously tested produces nearly the same results. Intel has stated the P4 is not designed to speed up standard office applications, but logically you might expect some performance improvement.
The P4 PCs begin to pull even with Pentium III systems when performing media encoding, one touted strength of the new chip. But even on tests with MusicMatch JukeBox and Windows Media Encoder (the software behind the Windows Media Player), which involve timing the conversion of audio files from one format to another, the 1.2-GHz Athlon beats the P4. The same pattern is evident on both the Adobe Photoshop test and the floating-point-intensive AutoCAD and Unreal Tournament tests.
In fact, the P4s excelled on only one test. When Windows Media Encoder converts an .avi file to a .wmv format, the P4s perform the task in 52 to 54 seconds–at least 14 seconds faster than the 1.2-GHz Athlon system and 17 seconds faster than the fastest 1-GHz PIII PC.
A multitasking test timing a typical Internet scenario – downloading a file in the background while performing Microsoft Access tasks in the foreground – runs no faster on the P4s tested, despite Intel’s indications that such a task should.
The P4 may actually be slower at processing certain apps that aren’t yet rewritten for it. But its disappointing performance may be temporary. If Intel convinces developers to optimize applications for the P4, you can expect performance to improve. The company says 60 such applications are already in the works. On the other hand, the processor seems unlikely to deliver much immediate improvement to the office apps most people use heavily.
Powerhouse P4 Systems Ship Today
The review systems are expensive performance PCs aimed at serious gamers and people who want to play streaming Web and locally stored audio and video files on the best-looking, loudest systems possible. Web content and multimedia and developers, workstation users, and other graphics professionals may want these loaded computers, as well.
The Pentium 4 and Athlon systems pack speedy graphics boards based on the latest NVidia chip, the GeForce2 Ultra, or on the slightly older GeForce2 GTS. All have 19-inch screens, fast DVD-ROM drives, CD-RW drives, 56-kbps modems, Ethernet ports, and powerful speakers. To save yourself $200 to $300, specify 128MB of memory instead of the 256MB used in testing.
If you need a P4 unit, the US$2999 IBM NetVista A60I offers the best value among the three systems tested; however, its 8X DVD-ROM drive was the slowest here. Gateway’s Performance 1500 has the most feature-rich configuration – and a $3999 price tag to match. At $3559, Dell’s Dimension 8100 is slightly cheaper, perhaps due to its smaller hard drive (40GB vs. the Gateway’s 60GB) and slower DVD-ROM drive (12X vs. 16X for the Gateway).
The clear price/performance victor among the machines tested is the $2699 Micron Millennia Max XP, the 1.2-GHz Athlon system. It won nearly every benchmark test and features a combination 12X DVD-ROM and 12X/10X/32X CD-RW drive from Ricoh. Micron says the Ricoh drive’s JustLink technology minimizes the data gaps that often make recorded CDs unusable. The unit’s 31GB hard drive is the smallest here, however.
All of the P4 systems use expensive RDRAM, while the micronpc.com system uses the new DDR. Micronpc.com is offering DDR upgrades for about the price of comparable PC-133 SDRAM.
If buying an Intel-based PC is important to you, PCWorld.com’s surprising test results should point you toward a 1-GHz PIII like our Gateway and Hewlett-Packard comparison units. PIII systems generally cost $500 to $700 less than P4s. The PIII chip is cheaper, and you can save even more if you buy a PIII with SDRAM instead of the pricier RDRAM.
Scrutinizing the Chip
Despite current performance disappointments, the P4 is a milestone in the history of the microprocessor. With 42 million transistors (nearly 50 percent more than the PIII possesses), the P4 represents a major CPU advance. Its widespread design innovations are directed primarily at cranking up clock speed – to 1.4 and 1.5 GHz initially, with sufficient headroom to double that to 3 GHz in coming years.
of the data bottlenecks that currently limit performance potential, such as the relatively slow 100- and 133-MHz PIII system buses that constrain high-speed CPUs. The P4’s bus is 400 MHz.
Paul Otellini, executive vice president and general manager of Intel’s architecture group, says the chip’s new design is meant to improve performance “where users will appreciate it most” – in areas such as 3D gaming, digital video creation, MP3 encoding, and streaming video.
Intel took a significant step to enhance the P4 platform’s appeal in July, when the company announced it would offer support for the P4 with additional types of high-speed memory besides pricey Rambus DRAM (RDRAM), which was previously the only memory option for the P4. You can expect P4s using Double Data Rate SDRAM and the slower SDRAM to appear by the second half of 2001. Via Technologies and Intel will both produce chip sets, which should lower P4 system prices significantly, according to PC vendors and analysts.
P4 Will Evolve in 2001
Within the next year, the P4’s value may improve dramatically. By mid-2001, P4 systems equipped with DDR and SDRAM should arrive, shaving $200 or more off system costs. And by the third quarter, Intel expects P4 speeds to reach 2 GHz. Combine that gain with richer streaming media content and greater access to the broadband needed to deliver it, and the P4’s appeal may grow.
AMD will not be standing still. In the first half of 2001, the company plans to release a faster, more powerful Athlon, code-named Palomino, which will target the mobile, desktop, and workstation markets.
Today, the price/performance sweet spot hovers at the highest peaks of Pentium III and Athlon chips. Where does that leave the P4? Just beyond the reach of most users, at least for now