PIII-866 Systems Pour It On

SAN FRANCISCO (03/20/2000) - The 1-GHz CPU has grabbed the spotlight in the chip speed races, as both Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. hit that mark this month. But when Intel jumped from 800 MHz to 1 GHz, it skipped a few spots, which it fills Monday. Making their debut are 850- and 866-MHz Pentium III CPUs, which will power systems that may prove more practical than the speed demon.

Dell Computer Corp. is one of the first vendors with a system that supports Intel's new PIII-866, and PC WorldBench 2000 tests find it runs nearly as fast as the IBM 1-GHz Pentium III machine announced earlier in March. But the upcoming 850- and 866-MHz machines may offer a better balance of price and performance.

Dell's Dimension XPS B-866 earned 156 on PC WorldBench 2000. Despite the Dell's slower clock speed, that's extremely close to the scores reported earlier for 1-GHz systems. IBM's PIII 1-GHz Aptiva S Series GZ earned the top score of 165 on PC WorldBench 2000. Gateway's Select 1000, based on the 1-GHz Athlon, clocked in at 157; and the Compaq Presario 5900Z-1GHz, also Athlon-based, earned a similar score of 154. The Compaq Presario 59000Z-850, also powered by an Athlon CPU, scored 139.

But the Dell's CPU is not the only reason it's running so quickly. The system's main memory plays a role: The Dell and IBM systems both have 128 MB of RDRAM, or Rambus memory, which costs about 30 percent more than standard SDRAM. To date, RDRAM hasn't made much impact on our benchmark tests, but Intel says it will as CPU speeds climb. Our tests are starting to support that assertion.

All systems ran Windows 98 SE and the newest version of the PC World benchmark suite, which uses 11 applications, including Word, Excel, Netscape Communicator, Quicken, and PhotoPaint.

Price May Be Right

So the Dell Dimension XPS B-866 may win your price-performance prize, compared to 1-GHz models. The system tested is priced at $3679, with a PIII-866EB CPU and the Intel 820 chip set, which supports a 133-MHz front side bus. This configuration has a 30GB hard drive, 12X DVD-ROM drive, and a CD-RW drive. It has 4X AGP graphics, and ATA-66, an enhanced version of the IDE storage interface that can transfer data at a peak of 66 mbps, a step up from the standard 33 mbps.

Extreme power users may be tempted to ignore its cost to enjoy the Dimension XPS B-866's prowess in business apps and graphics. 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.

Other systems tested were announced earlier in March: The Athlon-powered Compaq Presario 5900Z-1GHz and Presario 5900Z-850; the 1-GHz Pentium III IBM Aptiva; and Gateway 1-GHz Selection 1000, also running an Athlon CPU.

The 1-GHz Compaq 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 checks in at $3498 with an almost identical configuration. The more modestly configured Presario 5900Z-850, priced at $2564, costs $1235 less than the 1-GHz model but has a 20GB hard drive and a 40X CD-ROM drive instead of DVD-ROM drive. 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 forgo the CD-RW and choose less expensive speakers.

More Than Megahertz

For systems today, CPU speeds simply don't tell the whole performance story. A CPU acts as a system's brain, but backbone components such as main memory, system bus, and 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 note the differences on the inside of these boxes--not just the MHz ratings on the outside.

The Dell and IBM systems tested have 128MB of RDRAM, while the Gateway and Compaq 1-GHz machines have 256MB of SDRAM. To date, Rambus memory hasn't made much difference on PC WorldBench tests, but that may well be changing.

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 die as the CPU) limits the system performance gains. Advanced Micro Devices reports the Athlon L2 cache runs at one-third the 1-GHz chip's clock speed, while Intel's Coppermine PIII chips have an on-die Level 2 cache that runs at full speed. PC WorldBench 2000 shows the on-die L2 gives a speed jolt to everyday applications like those used in PC WorldBench 2000.

It's also worth noting that the AMD Athlon has a 200-MHz frontside bus--a key data path between the CPU and the system--but the 1-GHz Athlon PCs are shipping with 100-MHz SDRAM for main memory, so they are not taking full advantage of the fast bus. Coppermine PIII systems use either 100- or 133-MHz front side buses.

Graphics Go-Getter

On supplemental graphics tests, which include games, CAD, and modeling applications, the graphics cards in the systems played a large role, but main memory and bus speeds also affected performance. One fact quickly became clear during testing: If you're a gaming fan, you should look for a system with double data rate memory, or DDR SDRAM on the graphics card.

All of the systems tested 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 we tested had 32MB of SDRAM.) Dell's behemoth was 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 did especially well displaying the geometric shapes and high-resolution color screens of games like Quake III and Unreal Tournament.

The Gateway 1-GHz machine completed the AutoCAD 2000 test the fastest, presumably because of the Athlon chip's superior processing of floating-point calculations.

Can Intel Deliver?

You should consider one more factor as you compare systems: Pentium III systems have recently experienced 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 machine ordered from Dell in late February was held up for more than two weeks.

The Intel supply woes hurt the fourth-quarter profits of PC makers like Dell and prompted rare public criticism. Gateway says Intel's supply problems helped it decide to return to the AMD fold.

"Even with the lower-end [700-MHz] Intel CPUs, availability has not 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 manufacturing capacity to produce the 850- and 866-MHz chips in volume this month.

"Demand is high across the product line. Certain speeds of the PIII 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 PIII 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, 1-GHz PIII chips won't ship in volume until the third quarter. It's an unfamiliar situation for Intel, especially in light of AMD's past supply problems.

PC World usually recommends buying "minus one" systems--PCs with CPU clock speeds 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'd expect. For the power-hungry, a well-loaded PIII-866 system like the Dell we tested performs quite well indeed.

By all means, go for a 1-GHz PC if you can find one 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 distance, at least for the next few months.

A Note About PC WorldBench 2000

These tests of the 1-GHz Athlon systems are among the first use of PC WorldBench 2000, an update to the PC WorldBench benchmark tests. PC WorldBench 2000 is based on 11 real-world applications: Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and Visio; Lotus WordPro and 123; Netscape navigator; Intuit Quicken; Adobe PhotoShop; and Corel PhotoPaint.

The PC WorldBench 2000 score reflects a system's performance compared to a baseline system, a Hewlett-Packard Pavilion 8380 desktop with a 400-MHz Pentium II processor and 96MB of memory. The baseline system's PC WorldBench 2000 score is 100. If another system achieves a score of 110, that system is ten percent faster than the baseline HP Pavilion when performing basic business tasks.

WorldBench 2000 scores should not be compared with WorldBench 98 scores reported previously. The WorldBench 98 scores are not equivalent to WorldBench 2000 numbers. PC World will retest systems when appropriate, to determine their WorldBench 2000 scores.

(Laurianne McLaughlin and Jeff Kuta of PC World contributed to this report).

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