During this celebration of our 10th anniversary, it seems only fitting to look back on a fun episode from our long-ago past. Back when the Pentium 4 was the new hotness, only not quite the hotness it became with Prescott at 90 nm, we featured a review of this processor against its natural competitor, AMD's original Athlon.
Around that time, an online retailer named Gotbyte was building a new website for itself, and its web developer apparently liked the idea of populating that site with some respectable-looking content. Like our review. Only that developer didn't like the idea of using his own bandwidth to serve the images in the review, so he simply embedded ours. Hey, free hosting. Only we noticed some anomalies when poking through our web logs and soon discovered they'd stolen our article. Our solution? We moved the original images for our article to another directory, changed the HTML in our review to include the new image location, and modified the original images—still embedded in the retailer's website—to send a rather different message. The article then appeared on Gotbyte's website more or less in the form you see below.
And yes, Gotbyte eventually apologized, took down the stolen review, and fired its web developer. But the fun we got out of it was almost worth the hassle. Be sure to keep scrolling to see that last image.THERE'S NO LOVE LOST between the Intel and AMD camps these days. Both sides know they're in for the fight of their lives, and both are bringing spectacular advances to the desktop PC market with regularity. The latest salvos in the desktop wars are a whole new microarchitecture from Intel and a revamped Athlon platform from AMD. The P4 and Athlon DDR in a head-to-head, take-no-prisoners benchmark brawl.
We've rounded up a 1.5GHz P4 system from Intel and tossed it into the ring with a 1.2GHz DDR system from AMD. To test our contenders' mettle, we've run them through a grueling gauntlet of benchmarks, from the highly synthetic to in-the-mud, real-world application tests.
Before the opening bell sounds, let's review our contenders' qualifications.
The Pentium 4's advantages
The Pentium 4 has been endowed by Intel with a number of natural advantages, not least of which is its incredible ability to ramp clock frequencies and, hand-in-hand with it, a hair-raising 1.5GHz top clock speed. Impressive as the GHz numbers are, though, the real story with the P4 is its ability to move data around inside the system. From the front-side bus to its RDRAM memory interface to its north-south bridge link, the P4 has a considerable advantage over the Athlon platform, at least on paper.
Let me slow down and run some of the numbers by you. The P4 has a 100MHz, "quad-pumped" front-side bus between itself and the rest of the system. To confuse you, we will, as always, refer to this bus interchangeably as 100MHz and 400MHz?whatever suits our purposes. This 400MHz monster can pump through up to 3.2GB of data per second. Coupled nicely with that bus are the P4's dual channels of PC800 Rambus DRAM, which can also push through 3.2GB of data per second at peak. Further down, in the less-exotic bowels of the system, the Intel 850 chipset has a 266MHz "hub"-style link between its north and south bridge chips. (Though Intel doesn't use directional terminology, the chips' purposes are basically the same as in most other contemporary PCs.)
In every one of these cases, the P4 has a system bandwidth advantage over the Athlon. If nothing else, the Pentium 4 platform has plenty of room to grow. And it ought to deliver a serious whuppin' at memory-intensive tasks.
The Athlon's advantages
Meanwhile, the Athlon's great advantage over the Pentium 4 is, well, the Athlon chip itself. AMD has created a wondrous thing in this processor, a marvel of x86-compatible design. Athlons have already easily outpaced the PIII in the megahertz race, and they're at least as fast, clock for clock, as any PIII chip. The Pentium 4 may run at higher clock speeds, but it does so by virtue of a very long instruction pipeline. The length of that pipeline hampers the P4's clock-for-clock performance, so that a 1.5GHz Pentium 4 isn't necessarily any faster than, say, a 1GHz Pentium III.
But then many things aren't as they seem once the theoretical performance numbers start flying around. For instance, the Pentium 4 talks to its L2 cache over a 256-bit wide connection, while the Athlon's L2 cache interface is only 64-bits wide. However, the Athlon Thunderbird's dual-ported, on-chip cache is probably just as good as the P4's.
But I digress. The advantages for the Athlon here include excellent clock-for-clock performance, especially in floating-point math, where the P4 is relatively weak and the Athlon is quite strong.
To bolster the Athlon's already strong performance, AMD has introduced a pair of platform enhancements. There's a new front-side bus speed of 266MHz, up from 200MHz. And there's the 760 chipset's ability to address double date rate (DDR) SDRAM. Created to combat the high prices (and latencies) of RDRAM, the DDR vs. Rambus struggle is a running subtext of the AMD-Intel conflict. The 133MHz variety of DDR memory, dubbed PC2100, can push through 2.1GB/sec, at peak?not as much as the P4's dual RDRAM channels, but twice the speed of conventional PC133 SDRAM.
In short, even though the Athlon is running at a clock rate 300MHz lower than the P4's, we're expecting big things out of this 1.2GHz DDR test rig.
Our testing methods
Let's cover what we tested and how, so the rules are clear up front. We've included not only our two contenders for the crown, but a couple of older systems for reference: a 1.1GHz Athlon with PC133 SDRAM, and an 800MHz Pentium III. Just because we can.
We chose to test in Windows 2000 rather than in Win9x/ME for a simple reason: Win2K is much, much better than Win9x/ME, and anyone putting down a big enough chunk o' change to buy a P4 system ought to know it. Once the next rev of Win2K, named Windows XP, makes it out the door, Win9x/ME will finally be put out to pasture. Yes, even for gamers. Win2K is making big strides in this area, and we expect Windows XP to dominate the desktop market in six months to a year. Nobody buying a P4 today ought to use it for any length of time with WinME or the like. Our decision to test with Windows 2000 may make the P4 look relatively stronger than it would in Win9x/ME, based on the scores we've seen around the web. But we think that's fair, under the circumstances.
As ever, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. All tests were run at least twice, and the results were averaged.
Our Pentium 4 test system contained these components:
Processor: Intel Pentium 4 processor at 1.4 and 1.5GHz..while our comparison systems varied only with respect to the motherboard, memory, and CPU. The Athlon DDR box looked like this:
Motherboard: Intel D850GB - Intel 850 chipset - 82850 memory controller hub (MCH), 82801BA I/O controller hub (ICH2)
Memory: 256MB PC800 DRDRAM memory in two 128MB RIMMs
Video: NVIDIA GeForce 2 Ultra 64MB (Detonator 3 version 6.31 drivers)
Audio: Creative SoundBlaster Live!
Storage: IBM 75GXP 30.5GB 7200RPM ATA/100 hard drive
Processor: AMD Athlon 1.2GHz CPU on a 266MHz (DDR) busFor the Athlon/KT133 system, we used:
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA7-DX motherboard - AMD 761 North Bridge, Via VT82C686B South Bridge
Memory: 256MB PC2100 DDR SDRAM in two 128MB DIMMs
Processor: AMD Athlon 1.1GHz CPU on a 200MHz (DDR) busSimilarly, we included a Pentium III test system?though only at 800MHz, we thought it would be a useful reference point?using these components:
Motherboard: Abit KT7-RAID motherboard - Via Apollo KT133 chipset - VT8363 North Bridge, VT82C686A South Bridge
Memory: 256MB PC133 SDRAM in two 128MB DIMMs
Processor: Intel Pentium III 800EB (Coppermine) CPU at 800MHz on a 133MHz bus
Motherboard: Asus P3V4X motherboard - Via Apollo Pro 133 chipset - VT82C694X North Bridge, VT82C596B South Bridge
Memory: 256MB PC133 SDRAM in two 128MB DIMMs
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- SiSoft Sandra Standard 2000.3.6.4
- Compiled binary of C Linpack port
- ZD Content Creation Winstone 2000
- LAME 3.70
- SPECviewperf 6.1.2
- ps5bench 1.1 Intermediate
- Adobe Photoshop 5.5
- POV-Ray for Windows version 3.1g
- 3DMark 2000 Pro build 335
- Quake III Arena 1.17
- Quake III Team Arena Internet demo
- MDK2 Internet demo
- Expendable Internet demo
In the Quake III Arena timedemo tests, we used the game defaults for "Normal" and "High Quality" rendering, with a few exceptions. For the "High Quality" tests, texture detail was set to maximum and the "high" geometry settings were enabled, as well.
The test systems' Windows desktop was set at 1024x768 in 32-bit color at a 75Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.
The performance tests
Let's get this DDR versus Rambus thing out in the open right away. We'll start with Linpack, which measures memory bandwidth using matrices of large, floating-point numbers. Linpack tests a range of data matrices of different sizes, so it stresses everything from the L1 cache out to main system RAM. Look at the graphs to see what I mean:
But the shape of the graph tells a story, and those peaks are only part of it. Notice how all the scores start to drop sharply between the 256K and 320K matrix sizes. That's the Linpack test moving beyond the L1 and L2 caches and into main memory. Thanks to a smart cache design, the Athlon is able to hold on a little longer, to about 320K, before suffering a drop off.
So the Athlon looks pretty good until we hit main system memory. Then it turns ugly.
The P4's RDRAM channels allow it to keep a nice, steady pace as the data size rises toward 2MB. The SDRAM-based systems all suffer by comparison; even the DDR box drops to under half the speed of the P4 system. If the race goes to the steady, the P4 wins here easily.
That's not the whole story, though. Memory bandwidth is important, but it's influenced by number of things?not least of which is a processor's ability to pull in data. There are solid reasons to believe the Athlon just isn't as geared toward maximizing memory bandwidth as is the P4. Beyond that, memory performance is also measured in terms of latency, and SDRAM systems have often shown real-world benefits over RDRAM thanks to lower access latencies.
So let's reserve judgment while we dive into some less synthetic tests, then see
Content Creation Winstone
POV-Ray 3D rendering
This test serves as a correction of sorts to my initial Pentium 4 review. In that review, I tested the P4 in the POV-Ray 3D rendering program, and it lost badly to a 1.1GHz Athlon?especially in rendering "ntreal.pov". Further testing has confirmed that I messed up badly in reporting the results for "ntreal.pov," however, making the Athlon look much faster than it was.
The corrected results below paint a more accurate picture.
LAME MP3 encoding
We've used a version of the LAME MP3 encoder that doesn't have any special optimizations for AMD's 3DNow or Intel's SSE/SSE2, so like POV-Ray, this one is all about x87 floating-point performance.
In fact, the P4 downright whupped the PIII on this one. Makes me wonder if all the fuss about the P4's relatively weak FPU isn't a bit overblown.
SPECviewperf workstation graphics
SPEC's viewperf suite of graphics tests measures performance using a range of high-end, workstation-class 3D applications and tasks. Theoretically, these tests ought to stress a number of things: FPU processing power, memory performance, AGP implementation, etc.
The results are mixed, with the suite of tests exposing nicely the truth about these systems' performance: either system can be faster, depending on the task. I won't dare speculate about why a given system is faster on a given test?there are too many variables involved?but in light of the P4's defeats on most of our previous tests, it's safe to conclude the P4 is relatively strong in 3D graphics-related tasks.
Quake III Arena gaming performance
Now into the gaming action...
If there's one thing to know about Pentium 4 performance, it's that these puppies love Quake. The P4 finally wins a real-world test outright and impressively, showing the Athlon a thing or two.
Now in the past, I've attributed the P4's dominance in Quake to its bandwidth advantages in memory and on the front-side bus. Some have speculated that the P4 benefits from the way Quake III is written, essentially suggesting the game's instruction mix is close to optimal for the P4. While that may be very much true, note that the Athlon benefits greatly from a faster bus and memory, as well.
Of course, once we get to the higher resolutions, the pack bunches up as the video card's fill rate becomes the primary bottleneck.
MDK2 gaming performance
Now for another OpenGL game. Will the P4 again dominate?
On to 3DMark, where Intel products have always performed relatively well. Suspiciously so, in fact. Has MadOnion, the company behind 3DMark, rigged this one in Intel's favor?
3DMark also does a CPU rating, and oddly, the Athlon loses this one...
Expendable Direct3D performance
We've included both average and minimum frame-rate numbers here, because Expendable is smart enough to record both things. Averages do matter, but the minimum frame rates are the real performance killers in any game.
So now we've seen how they stack up performance-wise. Before drawing our conclusions, let's take a second to weigh some other considerations. There are some hardware-related platform differences between these two setups worth noting. In particular, the AMD Socket A chips are fragile, subject to damaged or cracked cores during the course of what ought to be routine handling. Poorly made heat sinks can destroy an Athlon chip during mounting, and it happens. We've seen it. AMD needs to do something to improve this situation, because simple upgrades are now too often fraught with peril.
Also, Athlon chips run very hot, and without a heat sink attached, they can burn up inside of a few seconds. That's no big deal for the most part, since attaching a heat sink to one's CPU ought to be a matter of course. But for hardware tinkerers like us, it's an additional worry.
The Pentium 4 doesn't have these problems, but the improvements come at a price?while the Athlon will work in a standard ATX case, the P4 requires a new, ATX12V power connector (part of a revised ATX spec backed by Intel). If you're upgrading your PC in the same case, that means you're going to need a new power supply. Not only that, but the P4 avoids having its core crushed by requiring a new, four-screw heat sink mounting bracket around the processor. Many existing cases will require modification to host a P4 properly. However, I have heard that some manufacturers are now supplying add-in heat sink support trays with their P4 motherboards, which could eliminate the need for a case mod.
Overclockers should keep in mind that the Athlon offers them more options than the P4. Intel processors are set at a locked multiplier, so the only means of overclocking them is via bus speed increases. Socket A chips, on the other hand, can be modified with a pencil to allow multiplier adjustments, and many motherboards allow menu-driven overclocking in the system BIOS. Like the P4, Athlons allow bus speed overclocking, but any time bus speeds runs too far out of spec in any system, unpredictable (read: bad) things start happening.
Finally, there's the future to consider. The current P4 will be replaced in a few months by a newer revision CPU that sits in a 478-pin socket, so drop-in CPU upgrades are out of the question. AMD is preparing a new revision of the Athlon, code-named Palomino, that may or may not work properly in current Socket A motherboards. In both cases, a motherboard upgrade may be necessary to upgrade much past the CPU speeds we've seen here.
Summing it all up
The combo of a 1.2GHz Athlon, 266MHz bus, and DDR SDRAM make up the heart of the fastest PC you can buy at present. The Pentium 4 isn't far behind, but in a broad majority of our tests, the Athlon DDR system is fastest. If money is no object and you want the fastest PC on the block, buy or build yourself an Athlon DDR rig.
Factor price into the equation, and it's an even easier call to make. At 1.5GHz, Pentium 4 processors run about $600 from bargain-priced mail-order vendors. A 128MB RIMM of PC800 RDRAM currently costs about $160. By contrast, a 1.2GHz Athlon will set you back around $300, and DDR SDRAM costs about a dollar per megabyte?or about $130 for 128MB. For TR readers looking to build their own systems, the Athlon is simply a better deal. No question about it.
Those of you looking to buy OEM systems from Dell, Micron, et al, will have a harder decision to make. In the OEM market, the math is different. It's not necessarily the case that an Athlon-based system will always be a better deal than a P4 system, just because the component costs are lower on the open market. You'll have to shop carefully, scrutinize specs, and do your homework to figure out which OEM system is a better deal.
Next, we should note that DDR memory and motherboards like the one we've tested here are only just becoming available now, in early March, despite the fact we first reviewed an AMD 760-based system upon its unveiling last October. What's more, rumors are flying about motherboard manufacturers deep-sixing their 760 mobos?or seriously curtailing production?in anticipation of Via's DDR Athlon chipset. We expect the AMD 760 chipset to have a rather limited lifetime because of this. AMD has used its chipsets to seed the market and bolster the Athlon platform, but they have been willing to cede the market to Via's chipsets once the Via products have arrived. That doesn't mean 760-based motherboards are a bad choice, however. AMD has provided mostly adequate support for their chipset products in the past, and we expect them to do so going forward.
Delays have harmed the 760, but so have competing PC133 SDRAM products. The PC133 system we tested here wasn't far off the DDR rig in most tests, but motherboards based on Via's new KT133A chipset have shown even better performance. (The KT133A chipset supports PC133 SDRAM, but also supports a 266MHz front-side bus.) In fact, the scores we've seen around the web are hard to ignore. It's clear the Athlon gains quite a bit more from the faster front-side bus than it does from the addition of DDR SDRAM. Folks looking for optimum performance on a budget will want to look into KT133A-based Athlon solutions. We'll be reviewing a KT133A mobo from Abit soon.
Finally, I should say a few words for our loser. Though the Pentium 4 didn't come out on top in these tests, Intel can certainly keep its head held high. The soaring memory bandwidth and Quake III performances we've seen from the P4 bodes well for the future. With the 850 chipset and dual RDRAM channels, Intel has built a world-class infrastructure for the Pentium 4. Once Intel moves to a .13-micron fab process later this year, P4 clock speeds ought to climb rapidly?and when they do, the P4 is gonna be a screamer.
Here I will pause to note something about RDRAM: $160 for 128MB really isn't bad. I hate to say it, but in light of the amazing memory performance we've seen from the P4 in these tests, the price premium over DDR SDRAM is worth every penny.
Ugh. I feel dirty now.
Pentium 4-optimized code in newer applications is likely to help the P4 down the road, too. But then most apps could run faster on the Athlon with the right compiler tricks. We'll explore the depths of specially-optimized applications in our next article, so stay tuned.