At the three-quarter mark in the race to 1GHz, Advanced Micro Devices and Intel are running neck and neck. Both companies just released 750MHz CPUs, and faster chips are imminent. But speed is only one measure of a CPU's worth. Which company makes the more powerful chip set?
Neither. In PC World's first hands-on tests of systems based on 750MHz chips, the newest Pentium IIIs and Athlons finish in a dead heat. At press time, Intel announced an 800MHz PIII CPU, initially available in limited quantities from major vendors.
Each company custom-built a system for us using a shipping version of its 750MHz processor, and Compaq sent us a preproduction Presario based on the Athlon-750. All three systems handled graphics, business apps, and multitasking with aplomb. So should you run out to buy one tomorrow? Not necessarily.
Power users who need every bit of speed to do complex calculations, create 3D models, and develop multimedia content should stick to the top processors. The rest of us may do better to consider slightly slower PCs: 733- and 700MHz Pentium IIIs and 700- and 650MHz Athlons offer good values. You can save US$200 to $300 (at least) while losing a mere 2 to 10 percent in performance on office apps such as Word. You can save more money with even slower systems that still handle most day-to-day tasks quickly.
Fast and Pricey
Loaded with 128M bytes of SDRAM, a whopping 27G-byte hard drive, DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, an NVidia GeForce 256-based graphics card with 32M bytes of SDRAM, and a 19-inch monitor, the Athlon 750MHz Compaq Presario 5900Z costs $3,335. You get a Diamond Rio MP3 player with the package, too. A comparably configured PIII-750 system should cost the same, plus or minus $200. Mainstream configurations with a 20G-byte hard disk, a DVD-ROM drive and a 17-inch monitor should sell for a less daunting $2,500.
You can expect to see 750MHz Athlon and Pentium III systems from IBM and Polywell by the time you read this; Dell and Gateway (among others) will sell Pentium III-750 machines. As of late 1999, Gateway denied it had any plans to sell Athlon-based systems, but rumors have resurfaced that Gateway is likely to use the powerful AMD chip.
Here's what we tested: AMD and Intel each submitted systems with 128M bytes of RAM, a 32M-byte NVidia TNT2 Ultra-based graphics card, Windows 98 and 20G- and 17G-byte hard drives, respectively. On our PC WorldBench 98 test suite, Intel's machine (which uses fast RamBus memory) edged ahead of AMD's system by an insignificant 3 percent (these two scored 315 and 305, respectively). The Presario was slightly slower (scoring 289) because Compaq adds useful support and antivirus programs that degrade speed a bit.
Better Chip Set
We expected to find a significant difference between the two reference systems on our multitasking test, where Intel Pentium-III PCs with RamBus memory have outperformed AMD PCs handily in the past. But this time the AMD and Intel systems finished essentially even, scoring 272 and 275, respectively. This result is likely due to recent improvements in AMD's 751 chip set, which wasn't fully optimized for use with the Athlon at launch. Here too the Presario -- which also used the improved 751 chip set -- ran third, presumably due to its extra software.
On our AutoCAD and Photoshop application tests, Intel pulled ahead slightly, but not enough to notice during real-world tasks. If your work involves applications like AutoCAD that do a lot of complex 2D calculations, don't compromise on processor speed. We saw differences of nearly 2 minutes between a Pentium III-750 and a PIII-667 PC on our AutoCAD test; the gap between 750MHz and 650MHz Athlon PCs widens to more than 2.5 minutes.
AMD's custom-configured system nabbed the top spot on the 3DMark test (which measures system performance in a gaming environment), but the difference was less than 4 percent -- you wouldn't notice it during work or play. (This test uses Intel's SSE extensions and AMD's 3DNow instructions.) All three 750MHz systems trailed our best-ever performer on the 3DMark test, Micron's Millennia Max Pentium-III-733. We suspect that the Micron's 133MHz front-side bus and its 133MHz VC SDRAM memory both contributed to its superior zip.
Several years ago, 1GHz processors seemed a distant dream. Now, AMD and Intel plan to release them before year's end. You can expect to see 800MHz CPUs from both AMD and Intel around the time you read this, and 900MHz Athlons should be out by spring. Intel is also developing a chip set to support 133MHz SDRAM, which should allow systems to run comparably to systems using more-costly RamBus memory.
It's too early to declare a winner in the race to 1GHz, but the current crop of chips powers systems that will satisfy the most demanding users. Does it really matter whether it's Intel or AMD inside at this point? You decide.
Either way, thanks to competition, you'll get what you want at a price you can afford.
-- Anush Yegyazarian
Compaq Presario 5900Z
Street price: $3,335; Compaq Computer Corp.; +1-800-345-1518; http://www.compaq.com