Contemplating Alpha; Warming to Celeron
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1998. First
published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, October 1998
Techtalk reader Ken McKinnon called us to task
?I read your article on CPU alternatives, and I agree
with most of your
views. However, there is one very important CPU you failed to mention.
The DEC Alpha chip is by far the most advanced CPU
in the market place today. Unfortunately, DEC screwed up their company,
and now Intel owns
the rights to it.
?I rarely get the opportunity to work with Alpha
chips. It's 99% Pentium
Chips these days. I don't mind Pentium chips, but the architecture
from too many bottle necks. I know that Microsoft favors the Alpha chip
when it comes to writing a 64-Bit (or 128-Bit) version of Windows
Who knows..... Intel may abandon the Pentium chip in favor of the Alpha
in the future?.
?The choices in the future will not be: Celeron, K6,
PowerPC, or MMX.
(how many people do you know buy Cyrix chips these days)? The choices
be: Pentium II, Alpha, or maybe Pentium III.?
There have been questions about the future of the
Alpha?for a long time,
it?s seemed like this powerful processor was Digital Equipment?s
secret. This spring, as part of the settlement of mutual lawsuits
Digital and Intel, Intel purchased the Hudson, Massachusetts Alpha
plant for $700 million. While there has been some concern about Intel?s
commitment to manufacturing a competitor?s CPU, Digital (now owned by
retained the right to license Alpha technology to other companies?and
done so, with AMD using it to produce a Slot 1-like bus, while Korea?s
Samsung has licensed the processor itself.
The current speed champ is the Alpha 21264 processor,
which, by utilizing
out of order code execution, manages to be twice as powerful as
previous Alpha 21164 model running at the same speed. Digital?s Aaron
quoted in the June 1998 issue of Byte Magazine, predicts that the 21264
will be ramped up from current 600 MHz speeds all the way to
speed (1000 MHz) within two years, and will offer double the integer
triple the floating point performance of Intel?s next generation Merced
processor?all that on a chip that?s half Merced?s size, produced on the
same 0.18 micron fabrication.
In fact, Alphas may hit 1 gigabyte speeds even sooner
subsidiary, Alpha Processors Inc (API), plans to bring out a model at
speed in 1999, according to a June 23rd report online by Cnet News.com.
They also report that the company expects to move to a more efficient
process, similar to the one developed by IBM.
Like Intel?s upcoming IA-64 Merced, which is now not
the year 2000 at the earliest, these Alpha models are already 64-bit
The problem is software?Alpha systems can run 64-bit Unix operating
but Windows NT, while available in a version optimized for Alpha, is
limited to 32-bit support. Microsoft is working on a 64-bit Alpha
(and is planning to produce a 64-bit Merced version as well). NT64 is
shortly after the release of 32-bit NT 5.0. According to API?s chairman
Dr. Daeji Chen, even the 32-bit NT 5.0 will provide support for 64-bit
There is an expectation that Compaq will build on its
ownership of the
Alpha by producing components, including chipsets and even
that can work with both AMD K6 and Alpha processors, expanding the
market for Alpha. Such developments could lead to an expanded line of
workstations. There were fears that Compaq only purchased Digital for
support network?the company has seemed intent on promoting Alpha as a
64-bit workstation solution that, unlike Merced, is here now.
However, all is not rosy with Compaq and Alpha. With
representing a mere 5% of the NT workstation market, Compaq has
cut its support for co-op marketing of Alpha-based products. Under
schemes, they shared in the advertising costs for server and
hardware powered by Alpha CPUs, but produced by 3rd-party
Compaq is producing new Alpha-powered models (such as the Alpha-powered
XP workstation) this makes it more difficult for other, typically
companies to compete using the processor.
Alpha is still not aimed at the computer
mainstream?Compaq?s XP line,
for example, will be selling between $5000-10,000 (US$)
Stepping back from the high-priced, high-powered
workstations, we need
to take another look at Intel?s Celeron. In June, when this attempt by
Intel to make its mark on the booming low-end market was new, we found
it disappointing. Its lack of an L2 cache resulted in lesser
than competitive products from AMD and others, or even compared to
That was the story, at least when looking at
performance running typical
office-type software. But that wasn?t the end of the story. A number of
readers wanted to ?Say Yes to Celeron?.
Reader Aaron Rokstad pointed out:
?What is intriguing is that Intel makes the Celeron
with the same core
as a PII 400. But, the Celeron is a 66 MHz FSB (front side bus) chip,
to the 100Mhz FSB P-II 400. Intel uses different grounding schemes,
limit the Celeron to 66 MHz. Take away that ground (pin b21) and voila,
a Celeron running at bus speed 100Mhz. Also, when you screw with the
and multipliers, you have a Celeron running on a bus speed of 100Mhz at
448 MHz (that's right, almost 450mhz!!!). Don't believe me, check
for info. Thousands of people are doing this. They get 350 MHz
for the price of just a little over 150 dollars. I've had mine running
at 400Mhz for around 8 days, no crashes or hangs.?
So hardware hot-rodders like it because it can be
over-clocked to run
faster than its initial setting. And it turns out that many gamers have
found it works for them, as well. Many popular games make little use of
the L2 cache, so Celeron?s lack doesn?t hurt them. And the Celeron has
the same floating-point unit (math-coprocessor or FPU) as the P-II,
is superior to the FPU in the clone CPUs. So it offers the most band
the low-end buck for Doom-players, as reader Art Prufer pointed out.
Finally, in August, Intel released a pair of new
Celeron models, with
an L2 cache. The Celeron 300A and 333A include 128 kb of cache compared
to the P-II?s 512 kb. But while the P-II?s cache runs at half the CPU?s
speed, these new Celerons run it at full speed. Less cache, but faster.
As a result, on some tests, the new Celerons seem as fast as the same
P-IIs, but at a considerably lower price.