SAN FRANCISCO (03/21/2000) - Intel now knows how the United States felt in 1957 when the Russians beat America into space with Sputnik.
For years, Intel Corp. dominated the CPU speed race. But on March 6 of this year, the unexpected happened. Several months ahead of schedule, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. surprised the world and launched the first x86 CPU to require a whole new term for blazing speed: gigahertz.
The famously competitive Intel must have seethed as AMD grabbed the glory. At the time it got wind of AMD's plans, the chip giant was busily preparing to launch its 850- and 866-MHz Pentium III chips. Intel hastily regrouped and on March 8 announced its first 1-GHz PIII processors. Intel does win bragging rights for the quickest 1-GHz processor--by a sliver.
We tested 1-GHz Athlon machines from Compaq and Gateway for this story, plus a 1-GHz PIII machine from IBM. On our PC WorldBench 2000 tests, the Intel-based IBM PC ran a slim 5 percent faster than the number two machine, Gateway's Athlon system. Intel's 1-GHz chips will ship in limited quantity until the third quarter, which means you'll be able to buy systems from only a few companies, including Dell, HP, and IBM. AMD, meanwhile, should have plenty of 1-GHz Athlons to go around, several PC vendors told us.
In the 1-GHz glare, don't lose sight of the other new chips: 850-, 900-, and 950-MHz Athlon systems will be shipping when you read this, as will 850- and 866-MHz PIIIs. We tested Athlon-850 machines from Compaq, Cybermax, and Gateway, plus a Dell PIII-866EB system that runs nearly as fast as the IBM 1-GHz machine. These 850- and 866-MHz machines may offer a better balance of price and performance for many people. Compaq's 1-GHz Athlon PC, for example, runs 11 percent faster than the company's 850-MHz model but costs hundreds of dollars more.
Do you remember PCs that ran at rates slower than 100 MHz? If so, you can't help but marvel at the megamilestone of 1000 MHz.
But understand this: While Intel and AMD are pushing CPU clock speeds ever higher, 800- to 1000-MHz systems are clustering pretty close to each other on our application-based performance tests.
For systems today, CPU speeds simply don't tell the whole performance story. A CPU acts as a system's brain, but backbone components like main memory, the system bus, and the graphics card do a lot of heavy lifting. These components can noticeably speed up or slow down a PC. More than ever, it's important to take into account the differences inside these boxes--and not just the MHz ratings outside.
Of the seven systems tested here (all running Windows 98 SE), IBM's Aptiva S Series GZ earned the top score of 165 on PC WorldBench 2000. (This updated version of our benchmark suite uses 11 applications, including Word, Excel, Netscape Navigator, Quicken, and PhotoPaint. You'll also see WorldBench 2000 at work in this month's Top 20 desktops reviews, beginning on page 200.) Gateway's Select 1000, carrying a 1-GHz Athlon, clocked in at 157; and the Pentium III-866EB computer, Dell's Dimension XPS B-866, earned 156: Those figures add up to a virtual dead heat, despite the Dell's slower clock speed. The Compaq Presario 5900Z-1GHz earned a similar score of 154.
Note that the Dell and IBM systems have 128MB of Rambus memory (RDRAM), while the 1-GHz machines from Gateway and Compaq have 256MB of SDRAM. To date, Rambus memory hasn't made much of a difference on our benchmark tests, but Intel has said the benefits of Rambus will become more evident as CPU clock speeds increase. That's an assertion our tests may already be starting to support.
Unfortunately, RDRAM still costs about 30 percent more than standard SDRAM.
More importantly, the Athlon chip's off-die Level 2 cache (as opposed to an L2 cache on the same piece of silicon as the CPU) limits system performance gains.
The 1-GHz Athlon chip's Level 2 cache runs at one-third of the chip's clock speed, while Intel's Coppermine PIII chips have an on-die Level 2 cache that runs at full speed. Our tests show that the on-die L2 gives a speed jolt to everyday applications like those used in PC WorldBench 2000. You can expect big performance gains when AMD releases its next Athlon, code-named Thunderbird, with an on-die L2 cache; Thunderbird is due out sometime between April and June.
It's also worth noting that the AMD Athlon has a 200-MHz front-side bus--a key data path between the CPU and the system--but thus far 1-GHz Athlon PCs are shipping with 100-MHz SDRAM for main memory, so they're not taking full advantage of the fast bus. Coppermine PIII systems use either 100- or 133-MHz front-side buses. When they use a 133-MHz front-side bus and have the on-die L2 cache, they're designated with the letters EB. Dell's Dimension XPS B-866 has a PIII-866EB chip and uses the Intel 820 chip set, which supports a 133-MHz front-side bus, 4XAGP graphics, and ATA-66, an enhanced version of the IDE storage interface that can transfer data at a peak rate of 66 MBps, a step up from the standard 33 MBps.
On our supplemental graphics tests, which include games and CAD and modeling applications, the graphics cards used in the systems played a large role in the results, but main memory and bus speeds also affected performance.
Graphics Grab Bag
One fact quickly became clear during testing: If you're a gaming fan, you should look for a system with DDR memory on the graphics card.
All our systems use graphics cards based on NVidia's GeForce 256 chip set, which provides the most advanced 3D rendering available on PCs, thanks to extra pipelines that shoot pixels and crunch geometric calculations. Dell's system boasts the most graphics power, thanks to its 64MB of DDR SDRAM, which runs significantly faster than standard SDRAM graphics memory. (Compaq will offer a Presario 5900Z-1GHz system with 32MB of DDR graphics memory, but the card in the machine that we tested had 32MB of SDRAM.)Dell's behemoth ran fastest on most tests, and it won the Caligari TrueSpace 4.2 modeling test by a mile, delivering 28 frames per second while the others topped out at 16 fps. The Dell and Gateway machines did especially well displaying the geometric shapes and high-resolution color screens of games such as Unreal Tournament and Quake III.
The Gateway Select 1000 machine zipped through the AutoCAD 2000 test in the shortest time, presumably because of the 1-GHz Athlon chip's superior processing of floating-point calculations.
The Cost Question
In high-end machines like these, PC vendors throw in all the toys, so costs can quickly add up. All seven of the systems we tested have 19-inch monitors, and all but the 850-MHz Compaq came equipped with 7200-rpm hard drives (now the standard on high-performance desktops).
The Compaq Presario 5900Z-1GHz costs the most at $3799, with a 10X DVD-ROM drive, a combination XDSL and 56-kbps modem, and a 40GB hard drive. IBM's Aptiva S Series GZ checks in at $3498 with a comparable configuration. Compaq sells a similarly loaded Athlon-850 system for $3452.
We also tested the more modestly configured Presario 5900Z-850, which, at $2564, costs $1235 less than the 1-GHz model but has a 20GB hard drive, and a 40X CD-ROM drive instead of a DVD-ROM. Note that the 850-MHz chip alone costs $400 to $500 less than the 1-GHz chip.
Gateway's $3308 Select 1000 Athlon 1-GHz system seems reasonably priced, given its 30GB drive, 8X DVD-ROM drive, and CD-RW drive, and you can cut that figure down to $2999 if you do without the CD-RW and choose less-expensive speakers.
Our Gateway Select 850 configuration skips the CD-RW drive and checks in at $2699.
Cybermax's $2499 Enthusiast K7-850 doesn't cut many corners either, what with a 27GB hard drive, a Sony CD-RW drive, and an 8X DVD-ROM drive. Better yet, the Enthusiast has plenty of pep. In our tests, it slightly outperformed the Compaq and Gateway 850s, with a PC WorldBench 2000 score of 153.
Extreme power users may be tempted to absorb the high cost of the $3679 Dell Dimension XPS B-866. This configuration has a 30GB hard drive, a 12X DVD-ROM drive, and a CD-RW drive. Remember, this system runs much like Gateway's 1-GHz Athlon machine on business apps, and it wins most of our graphics tests. For the ultimate in video editing, 3D modeling, and gaming, you want the best graphics card and RAM you can find, if you can swallow the price. But typical PC users will get all the performance they need from a slightly less powerful system like the Gateway Select 850 or Cybermax Enthusiast K7-850, at a price well under $3000.
If you have an equity stake in Amazon.com, check out the 1-GHz PIII system Dell will be selling by the time you read this. Called the Dimension XPS B1000r Special Edition, it will sell for a whopping $5299 with 256MB of RDRAM, a 40GB hard drive, a graphics card with 64MB of DDR memory, a 12X DVD-ROM drive, a CD-RW drive, a V.90 modem, and a 21-inch monitor. A $3999 version has a similar configuration but with 128MB of RDRAM, a 30GB hard drive, and a 19-inch monitor. Supplies are limited, the Dell Web site warns. The company plans to sell lower-priced configurations later in the year, when more 1-GHz chips become available.
Intel Supply Woes?
Supply may be a factor to consider when you compare systems: As of late February, some PIII machines carried shipping delays of a couple of weeks to a month. Intel chip and chip-set shortages have disappointed PIII-800 system buyers and others--even a PIII-600 Dimension machine ordered from Dell in late February took longer than two weeks to ship.
Intel's supply woes hurt the fourth-quarter profits of system makers such as Dell and prompted some rare public criticism. Gateway said that Intel's supply problems encouraged it to return to the AMD fold. "Even with the lower-end [700-MHz] Intel CPUs, availability hasn't been that strong," says Mark Vena, Compaq's director of consumer desktop product marketing. "They probably have not executed as well as AMD."
Intel says it is increasing its manufacturing capacity to produce the 850- and 866-MHz chips in volume by the time you read this. "Demand is high across the product line. Certain speeds of the Pentium-III processor have been tight since Q4," says Intel spokesperson George Alfs. As of late 1999, Intel had four fabrication plants running the .18-micron process used to make Pentium-III chips; the company will add one such plant by the end of the first quarter of 2000, and another by the end of the year. But as noted earlier, the 1-GHz PIII chips will not ship in volume until the third quarter.
It's an unfamiliar situation for Intel. In the years before the Athlon chip, AMD fought a continual plague of supply problems. But now, even the financial situation at the often unprofitable AMD has improved, with a reported $65 million profit for the fourth quarter of 1999.
AMD's greater credibility as an Intel competitor benefits consumers by ensuring continuing price reductions. A scant few weeks before unveiling their 1-GHz surprises, both of these companies reduced the prices on their midrange chips by as much as 30 percent, which should slash a couple of hundred dollars off the prices of sub-850-MHz computers.
Your Best Strategy
AMD and intel will continue battling fiercely in the months ahead, leading up to some interesting changes this fall. At that time, AMD plans to release its 760 chip set for Athlon machines, which will support both a faster front-side bus speed of 266 MHz and the use of DDR SDRAM as main memory to take advantage of that faster bus. Intel's next-generation chip, code-named Willamette, will arrive soon after that. Both companies have demonstrated that they can push existing PIII and Athlon chips further, to perhaps 1.1 GHz, before the Thunderbird and Willamette appear.
If you buy a computer anytime soon, you'll get an awful lot for your dollar.
Today's "slow" systems run at 600 MHz--a lot more speed than many of us need to run our Word, Excel, and e-mail programs, and a Web browser.
We usually recommend buying "minus one" systems--computers whose CPU clock speeds are at least one level down from the top. The case for this approach has never been stronger.
The speed boost from 800 MHz to 1 GHz is less dramatic than you would expect.
For the power-hungry, a well-loaded Pentium III-866 system like the Dell Dimension XPS B-866 performs quite well indeed. For mainstream computer buyers, the Athlon-850 systems hit a sweet spot for price and performance.
By all means, go for a gigahertz PC if you find one that you can afford. As always, the priciest performers will appeal to gamers and graphics professionals. But for the rest of us, the race to 1 GHz and beyond may be a spectacle best watched from a comfortable, money-saving distance for the next few months.
Compaq Presario 5900Z-1GHz
Street price $3799; 800/345-1518; www.compaq.comPRODUCT INFO NO. 725Compaq Presario 5900Z-850Street price $2564PRODUCT INFO NO. 726Cybermax Enthusiast K7-850Street price $2499; 800/345-8926; www.cybermaxpc.comPRODUCT INFO NO. 727Dell Dimension XPS B-866Street price $3679; 800/388-8542; www.dell.comGateway Select 850Street price $2699; 800/315-2536; www.gateway.comPRODUCT INFO NO. 728Gateway Select 1000Street price $3308PRODUCT INFO NO. 729IBM Aptiva S Series GZStreet price $3498; 800/426-7235; www.pc.ibm/usBeyond Intel's Pentium III: Willamette in the WingsIn its war with AMD, Intel's new battle cry is "Watch Out for Willamette!"
Code-named for an Oregon river, Intel's next-generation microprocessor should debut later this year at a racy clock speed of at least 1.5 GHz. But to enliven today's software and prepare for future apps, Intel has to do more than just ratchet up clock speed--the chip will incorporate some major design changes that make it quite different from the the Pentium III.
First, Willamette employs a technique called Advanced Dynamic Execution.
(Dynamic means the processor deals with instructions in whatever order is most efficient, instead of in numeric order.) Willamette considers more than 100 instructions at a time, compared to the PIII's limit of 40. Additionally, Willamette's two arithmetic logic units run at two times the processor frequency and zip through four operations in one clock cycle--twice as many as the PIII. An execution trace cache--a new type of Level 1 instruction cache--feeds data quickly to the hungry CPU.
In another quick change, Willamette PCs will boast a 400-MHz (3.2-GBps) system bus, as compared to the 100-MHz (800-MBps) or 133-MHz (1056-MBps) buses on PIII machines. Intel says the faster bus will prove particularly important for future applications that use streaming audio and video. To take advantage of this bus, PCs will need fast main memory. Intel designed Tehama, the first chip set for Willamette PCs, for use with Rambus memory. (By the way, don't plan on popping this chip onto an older PC motherboard: Intel hasn't designed Willamette to work in systems with 100- or 133-MHz buses, or with the chip set that supports SDRAM.)Intel will also build in SSE2, a revamped version of the PIII's Streaming SIMD extensions. This instruction-set technology can speed up specially modified applications--although to date, it hasn't delivered much for most PC users.
To do battle against Willamette, AMD will give the Athlon chip a clever makeover. Sometime between April and June, AMD will begin shipping an Athlon (code-named Thunderbird) with an on-chip L2 cache running at full CPU clock speed, instead of the one-third speed of the 1-GHz chip's L2.
In the third or fourth quarter, AMD plans to release a new 760 chip set so Thunderbird systems can use a 266-MHz front-side bus (up from 200 MHz) and DDR main memory, which AMD says will perform much like Rambus but at a lower cost.
What's more, AMD plans to stay "competitive with Intel clock speeds throughout the year," says spokesperson Drew Prairie. Based on what we've seen recently, they're not just talking tough. --Laurianne McLaughlin.