Product review: Intel chip awaits new apps

With all of the marketing hype surrounding Intel's Pentium III processor, it is tough to know whether it will actually help your business. I compared the performance of two typical business desktop systems, from Compaq Computer and Hewlett-Packard, testing with both Pentium II and Pentium III CPUs. Many vendors are now, or soon will be, shipping business desktop machines that include the new chip.

The big deal about the Pentium III is its streaming SIMD extensions, or SSE, formerly known as Katmai New Instructions. (SIMD stands for single instruction, multiple data. You can get the details at www.intel.com/pentiumIII.)As one of the three performance enhancements of Intel's multimedia extensions, known as MMX, SIMD lets one microinstruction operate at the same time on multiple data items. This is especially useful for applications in which visual images or audio files are processed. What usually requires a repeated succession (or loop) of instructions can now be performed in one instruction. Intel offers the analogy of a drill sergeant issuing the order "about face" to an entire platoon rather than to each soldier.

These additional MMX-style routines perform multimedia functions much faster than a normal Pentium II chip can. But because no business applications currently support SSE, those benefits will not be seen for some time. As with MMX, the first applications supporting SSE will most likely be games, such as Quake III, that do a lot of 3-D rendering.

The Pentium III CPU ID may concern some users. It is a more serious privacy issue for consumers, but the implications of software tied to a specific CPU should be a red flag for IT managers as well.

I looked at two business desktop systems, a Compaq Deskpro EN running Windows 98 and an HP Vectra VLi8 running Windows NT. I used the InfoWorld Test Center's Application Suites for Windows 98 and Windows NT, respectively. These suites comprise common business applications that do not include SSE enhancements, so the performance numbers probably reflect clock-speed differences rather than inherent CPU improvements.

Consequently, the performance gains I saw with the Pentium III 450-MHz processor in each system were meager. With both the Compaq and HP models, the Pentium III CPU performed approximately 2 percent faster than in the identical system with a Pentium II 450-MHz processor installed. The speed of the 500-MHz Pentium III units were more impressive: 9 percent faster on the Windows 98 system and 10 percent faster using Windows NT. Of course, if you have an application that uses SSE, you should see much better performance.

The Compaq 450-MHz Pentium II and Pentium III chip cost the same: $1,929; and the 500-MHz model costs $2,149. HP did not have a price for the 450-MHz configuration at press time, but the 500-MHz Pentium III system I tested has a list price of $2,139. Of course, as always happens with chip prices, once the Pentium III chip hits the streets, Pentium II chip prices should drop, and this should be reflected in business desktop prices soon after.

My recommendation is that if you do not have a specific application that uses SSE, do not bother with the Pentium III for now. The slight performance gains you will see over a similarly configured Pentium II system are not worth the extra money. Eventually, as more applications begin supporting SSE and prices drop, the Pentium III will gain in value.

Technology Analyst Kevin Railsback is looking for a soldering iron to disable the CPU ID on those Pentium III systems once and for all. He can be reached at kevin_railsback@infoworld.com.

Pentium III free-for-all

The Pentium III rush is on with Intel's announcement of the new chip last week. Here are some of the systems being based on the processor.

Model Pentium III RAM Hard Drive Price US$Compaq Deskpro EN 450 MHz 64Mbyte 6.4Gbyte $1789Dell OptiPlex GX1 450 MHz 64Mbyte 6.4Gbyte $1725Hewlett-PackardVectra VLi8 500 MHz 64Mbyte 8.4Gbyte $2200IBM PC 300GL 450 MHz 64Mbyte 4.2Gbyte $1499MicronMillennium Max 500 MHz 64Mbyte 13Gbyte $1999NECPowerMate 8100 500 MHz 64Mbyte 8.4Gbyte $2099The bottom lineIntel Pentium III processorThe Pentium III will not be worth your money until some useful business applications support it. Once developer support for streaming SIMD extensions (SSE, formerly called Katmai) is widespread, the Pentium III may approach its marketing hype.

Pros: PC multimedia performance to reach a new level with SSECons: Current software lacks support for SSE; privacy and licensing problems for some users due to CPU IDIntel, Santa Clara, California; www.intel.comShip date: Available now from systems manufacturers

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