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’
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
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
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
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
..while our comparison systems varied only with respect to the
motherboard, memory, and CPU. The Athlon DDR box looked like this:
Processor: AMD Athlon 1.2GHz CPU on a 266MHz (DDR) bus
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA7-DX motherboard – AMD 761
North Bridge, Via VT82C686B South Bridge
Memory: 256MB PC2100 DDR SDRAM in two 128MB DIMMs
For the Athlon/KT133 system, we used:
Processor: AMD Athlon 1.1GHz CPU on a 200MHz (DDR) bus
Motherboard: Abit KT7-RAID motherboard – Via Apollo
KT133 chipset – VT8363 North Bridge, VT82C686A South Bridge
Memory: 256MB PC133 SDRAM in two 128MB DIMMs
Similarly, we included a Pentium III test system?though only at
800MHz, we thought it would be a useful reference point?using these
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 1024×768 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:
Interesting, no? So you may be wondering, “Who won?”
That depends. In terms of peak performance, the Athlon systems won, with much
higher numbers on the tests involving smaller data sets. There are probably a
couple of reasons for the Athlon’s higher peaks here. First, the Athlon’s L1
data cache is 64KB, and it’s obviously very fast; by comparison, the P4 has a
rather small 8KB L1 data cache. Once the Athlon moves out of its L1 cache, past
64KB matrix sizes, performance drops. Second, the Athlon’s floating point math
unit is excellent, which should help it process cached data very quickly.
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.
Sandra’s modified STREAM benchmark offers another perspective on
the data, but it’s basically the same dynamic. The Pentium 4’s impressive
theoretical advantages in memory throughput are even more remarkable in
practice. DDR SDRAM does help the Athlon along a bit, but comparatively, DDR
looks kind of weak here.
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
So let’s reserve judgment while we dive into some less
synthetic tests, then see
Content Creation Winstone
Here’s our first indication of how close a matchup this really
is. Our 1.1GHz PC133 Athlon rig loses out to the P4, but the DDR box has enough
extra oomph to pull out a win.
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
The corrected results below paint a more accurate picture.
The Athlon’s monster FPU rips through this one quite a bit
faster, but the P4 isn’t that far off the game. Still, that’s two
real-world apps down, and two victories for the Athlon DDR system.
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.
You were expecting something else? Another win for the Athlon
system, with the P4 again performing fairly respectably in an FPU-intensive
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
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.
Team Arena is much the same story as the original Quake III, but
it’s CPU-bound even at 1024×768. Again, the P4 rolls.
MDK2 gaming performance
Now for another OpenGL game. Will the P4 again dominate?
Not exactly. The Athlon DDR box cranks here, turning in as
impressive a win in MDK2 as the Pentium 4 did in Quake III.
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?
If they did, it didn’t matter. The Athlon DDR system rips through
3DMark, stunning the P4. This is not the result we’d expected based on what
we’ve seen in the past. Notice that the Atlon/PC133 system trails the P4 by over
a thousand points. Obviously, the DDR rig’s extra system bandwidth makes the
3DMark also does a CPU rating, and oddly, the Athlon loses
But once you get to the individual game tests, things turn
Now for a real Direct3D game…
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
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
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.