To the Swift

The race for more PC clock speed continues, leaving a confusing array of chip choices-and cheaper prices-in its wake.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the January 2002 issue of Entrepreneurs Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Say goodbye to Intel's Pentium III and all desktop computers with speeds measured in megahertz. They're getting unceremoniously elbowed aside this quarter to make room for a spate of new models powered by 1GHz-plus versions of the Pentium 4 and AMD Athlon processors.

It took us 19 years to get to 1GHz but only 18 months to get to 2GHz-and Intel is already talking 3.5GHz. And clock speed is only one way the chip giants are driving performance for a mind-boggling array of new desktop configurations.

is the estimated drop in the amount small businesses spent on IT products, services and personnel between 2000 and 2001.
SOURCE: Cahners In-Stat Group

Does that mean you can look forward to zippier applications, too? Well, maybe not for a while. Long-lasting improvement would require that Microsoft start writing simpler software, and you know that isn't going to happen. Then, too, brave new apps like videoconferencing, speech recognition and streaming media off the Internet will gobble up clock cycles.

No, history shows that faster processors just breed bigger software that, sooner or later, requires faster processors. So even though you're being deluged right now by ridiculous bargains on yesterday's perfectly fine Pentium IIIs, resist the temptation to "get by."

"Pentium III is dead on the desktop," concludes Gartner senior research analyst Mark Margevicius in Cleveland, Ohio. His research shows that-PCs being what they are-you'll save money if you buy up the power curve and lengthen your PC's longevity.

Hip Deep in the Chips

Businesses resisted that advice through most of 2001, handing PC-makers their first truly bad year in memory and leaving them in desperation right now. Buyers didn't feel the need for that much speed, says Margevicius, and they didn't like the expensive dual-channel Rambus DRAM (RDRAM) needed by the 850 chipset in early Pentium 4s. Most companies now use the cheaper-but-slower Synchronous DRAM.

But in September, coincidental with the rollout of its 1.9GHz and 2GHz Pentium 4 versions, Intel introduced a new 845 chipset that recognizes SDRAM. Overnight, there were 16 different Pentium 4 configurations possible, many at Pentium III price points. In fact, Intel plans to drive Pentium 4s down to $800, says Jeff Austin of Intel's Desktop Platforms Group in Hillsboro, Oregon.

However, 2GHz is about as far as Intel wants to push the .18 micron Pentium 4-also known as the Willamette core. Future speed demons will pack smaller components on the chips using Intel's new .13 micron Northwood die. The smaller core can run faster, cooler and at higher clock speeds, says Austin.

Pentium 4 shopping gets still more complicated this quarter when Intel releases an 845 chipset that can recognize faster Double Data Rate (DDR) versions of SDRAM that effectively push the memory transfer rate as high as 2.1GBps. That's still significantly lower than the 3.2GBps data rate possible with the 850 chipset and 800MHz RDRAM.

"But I see no reason to use RDRAM once DDR is available," says Kevin Krewell, senior analyst for Cahner's In-Stat/MDR. "Even 2.1GB is in excess of the bandwidth you need for business applications."

AMD chipsets have long used DDR technology to boost the memory buses of Athlon systems to 200MHz or 266MHz; and, this quarter, expect AMD to roll out five versions of a new Athlon XP processor that ships exclusively with a 266MHz bus. Athlon XP is a faster and slightly smaller chip than Athlon, but it still uses a .18 micron core.

GHz Is Overrated

At this point, it looks like Intel should have the edge. But AMD argues that gigahertz is a poor measure of system throughput because Athlons execute instructions faster than Pentium 4s. The company typically emphasizes different system features than Intel-for example, this quarter it will release a new HyperTransport bus six times faster than its 266MHz frontside bus.

AMD has dropped clock nomenclature from its new chips, claiming that even its 1.33GHz Athlon XP 1500+ will outperform a 1.8GHz Pentium 4. Most experts agree Athlons deserve some kind of speed premium-though maybe not that large. Anyway, what's a few megahertz when the slowest of your chip options is two to three times faster than what you have now, and you can find two dozen system configurations between $800 and $1,500?

Suffice it to say that AMD can deliver Pentium 4 performance, and brand names like Compaq and Hewlett-Packard testify to their quality. Reliability is no longer an issue even among so-called white box PCs, adds Margevicius, so expect to get four good years out of even the slowest power PC featured in this month's "Buyer's Guide"

Most observers agree that you're better off shopping a system's memory instead of its processor-DDR SDRAM being the sweet spot. An additional bank of memory closes most performance gaps and is better use of your dollars, especially under Windows XP.

Beyond that, feel free to shop on price and peripherals. It's hard to find a bad-or slow-PC these days.

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