Intel Benchmarks Slam Rambus

Intel Corp. wants you to love pricey Rambus memory, largely because its upcoming Pentium 4 processor will require the technology. But the chip maker's own tests show today's Pentium III systems that use less-expensive PC-133 SDRAM memory often outperform comparable RDRAM-based systems.

Intel recently posted benchmark results that show systems using Intel's new 815E chip set with PC-133 SDRAM generally score better than systems with Intel's 820 chip set using PC-800 RDRAM. Despite these results, Intel executives still claim RDRAM is superior.

A system with the 820 chip set and RDRAM is the best choice for performance-hungry PC users, says Dan Francisco, Intel spokesperson. Plus, RDRAM offers more headroom than PC-133 SDRAM for future high-end applications such as streaming media, he says.

Future applications notwithstanding, Intel's own test results seem to show little value in RDRAM. The chip maker's scores echo those of the PC World Test Center, as published in "Money for Nothing? Rambus Performance Falls Short."

Using PC WorldBench 2000, testers benchmarked systems using PC-100, PC-133, Double Data Rate SDRAM, and RDRAM. The results showed little to no performance advantage for systems using RDRAM.

SDRAM Shines

Intel ran a wide range of industry benchmarks designed to measure a system's performance in four main areas: productivity, multimedia, CPU/FPU (floating-point unit), and Internet. Using both Windows 98 and Windows 2000, the company conducted 18 tests on the 820-based systems and 14 on the 815-based PC.

All test systems had the same basic hardware: a 30GB ATA-100 hard drive, a video card with 32MB of DDR SDRAM memory, and a 32X CD-ROM drive. The 815E-based systems contained 128MB of PC-133 SDRAM; the 820-based systems, 128MB of PC-800 RDRAM. Intel tested each system with numerous Pentium III processors: five for the 820 system (from 800 MHz to 1 GHz) and 15 for the 815E system (500 MHz to 933 MHz). The system tests overlapped at four speeds: 800 MHz, 850 MHz, 866 MHz, and 933 MHz.

At 800 MHz, the 815E-based system outperformed the 820-based system in 13 of the 14 tests and tied on one. At 866 MHz, the 815 won 10, tied three, and lost one. At 933 MHz, the 815 won 11 and lost three. For some reason the 820 fared best in the 850-MHz test system, where it won 11, tied two, and lost one.

Neither memory standard posted substantially better results in any of the specific tests.

Intel's Francisco says you shouldn't try to compare 815E- and 820-based products because the company targets each at different market segments.

However, it's difficult not to draw comparisons (and conclusions) when the test systems are virtually identical and the test results are so obvious.

Cheap RDRAM?

Intel's own tests show PC-133 SDRAM is the way to go for most PC buyers today.

That's good news if you're uncomfortable spending extra money for RDRAM.

Despite supporters' claims that RDRAM prices are dropping, a quick check of Web prices Tuesday shows 128MB of PC-800 RDRAM selling for about $US470, while 128MB of comparable PC-133 memory costs $US232.

Rambus executives predict a significant drop in the price of RDRAM as manufacturers increase production and more vendors use it. However, even optimistic backers suggest it will always carry a premium of at least 25 percent over SDRAM. That's a steep premium for a technology that continues to show little to no performance advantage.

Intel executives have long argued that Rambus technology will prove more valuable as processor speeds move beyond the 1-GHz mark. In fact, the upcoming P4, expected to launch later this year at around 1.4 GHz, will require Rambus memory.

It's easy to argue that Rambus will work better with an as-yet-unreleased processor, but the benchmark-watcher may still question: Considering Intel's own tests, why would anyone buying a PIII system select Rambus today?

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