About the balancing act
Running this suite of tests on these processors has demonstrated a couple of things worth noting about how these CPUs perform. First and foremost, it's clear the Athlon 1.33GHz is still the big dawg of PC processors. It's easily the fastest x86-compatible CPU around. Intel's new entry, the 1.7GHz Pentium 4, performs about like a 1.2GHz Athlon in most situations.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
In fact, this little exercise has finally taught me something the Intel guys have been trying to pound into my head for a while now: the Pentium 4's performance balance is pretty darn good. By that I mean it handles a variety of types of mathinteger, floating point, SIMDequally well (more or less). In my original Pentium 4 review I echoed some sentiments I've heard in a number of places before and since, that the P4's FPU isn't very good. Truth is, the Pentium 4's balance between integer and floating-point performance is very, very similar to the Pentium III's. And it's not far from the Athlon's, either. Sure, the processor executes a relatively low number of instructions per clock, but the P4's floating-point units aren't especially bad in this respect, even without the help of SSE or SSE2.
Finally, our tests have shown pretty clearly that the Athlon does a better job running legacy code. Both the P4 and Athlon benefit from the use of newer compilers, and I can't really give the edge to either processor on this front. But the Athlon is much more resilient when code isn't terribly friendly. That's a good trait for any processor to have, but it's especially vital to a non-Intel CPU that has to survive in an Intel-dominated world. No doubt Intel will continue to push for new code optimizations by improving its compilers and by using its considerable influence in the industry, so the P4 will have a leg up going forward. However, the Athlon has the particularly pleasant advantage of being more comfortable running whatever code you throw at it.
Intel's pricing bombshell
The sweetest part of this new processor from Intelbesides being able to tell your friends you have a 1700MHz systemis the price: three hundred fifty-two American dollars. (That's US$352, kids.) The other Pentium 4 speeds will fall in line below that. That's much more reasonable than the initial P4 pricing was, and it's more in line with the processor's performance, too.
Whether or not the 1.7GHz Pentium 4 is a good value at that price is another question. Athlons are still cheaper, and they don't require RDRAM. Currently RDRAM is about four times the price of PC133 SDRAM and about twice the price of DDR SDRAM. But heck, RDRAM is still under a dollar per megabyte, so buying or building a Pentium 4 system might not even chew up this year's entire tax return, if you played your cards right with Uncle Sam.