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ISSUE 547: The high tech office- April 18 2000


Superfast processors not necessary for most users

Last month, personal computer processors sped past one GigaHertz/second. That's a billion cycles per second -- or a thousand million.

It's taken a while. In the late 1970s, the Apple II had a processor running at a less-than-blistering one megahertz. The first IBM PC, a few years later, pushed the speed of its processor to a little under five MHz.

As recently as 1995 or so, many of us were using something like a 486 computer, running at 66 MHz, and doing quite well, thank you. But the rate of change has picked up, pushed not so much by consumer demand as by competition. Intel, producer of the majority of personal computer pro-
cessors (and the hardware half of the Wintel duopoly), has increasingly been challenged by AMD-American MicroDevices. It is no longer content with the role of bottom-feeder, producing copies of older Intel designs for cheap home computers.

In fact, when AMD first released its Athlon processor last August to compete with Intel's high-end Pentium III, it ran at speeds somewhat faster than Intel's best at the time. That led to AMD contracts to provide processors for four out of the five largest PC makers, and has helped to triple the company's stock price over the past year. Since then, the speed crown has passed back and forth between the two companies.

This time around, just three weeks after shipping an 850-MHz model, AMD was first off the mark with a 1-GHz Athlon. Intel released a 1-GHz Pentium III two days later. While the two chips claim the same speed, there are some differences.

Independent testing by computer magazine publisher Ziff Davis suggested that the Athlon had superior math coprocessor performance (an area where AMD chips had traditionally been weaker). Intel's Pentium III had faster memory caching, which is a technique to keep the slower system memory from falling too far behind the speeding processor. The two processors use different sets of multimedia instructions, al-
though these test results were pretty similar.

Overall, Ziff Davis's testing concluded that Intel's high-end processors narrowly outperformed AMD's (mostly due to the more powerful memory cache), but also cost more.

And, of course, a fast processor isn't the only thing that determines computer performance. Hard-drive speed and the amount and speed of system memory are also critical. In some cases, a computer with a slower processor can actually outperform
a seemingly faster one in the real world.

As always, these top-end computers are expensive, with price tags of $4,000 and up. But most of us won't be looking at buying them anytime soon. Instead, there are other positive effects from the release of the 1-GHz models.

* The release of these latest speed demons pushes down the price of the previous generation of processors: 700 - 850 MHz processors move from the high-end to more af-
fordable mid-range models.

* AMD will be taken more seriously as a valid alternative to Intel. Despite its gains in the marketplace, its processors are still primarily found in computers aimed at home users rather than the corporate market. AMD seems to have overcome supply problems and its new high-end models deserve to be considered for enterprise systems.

Of course, the computer processor speed race won't be stopping with these 1-GHz models. AMD has already demonstrated a 1.1-GHz model and said that its future designs will offer full-speed memory caching, catching up with Intel's advantage in this area. And Intel is nearing completion of a new product line set to run at 1.5 GHz and above.

Computer speeds above one GHz breaks what is more of a psychological barrier than a technical one. I'm still using PCs running at 300 and 400 MHz and a Mac running at 266 MHz. I'd bet that most of you have computers running at those speeds or slower -- in many cases, far slower. And most of us aren't running software that needs anything close to these speeds.

In fact, in the short term at least, we may see more benefit from big, cheap hard drives. IBM's recent announcement of a 75-gigabyte hard drive suggests that drive space will continue to grow. The result of that, I suppose, is that operating systems and applications will continue to bloat, eventually requiring not only big hard drives, but increasingly fast processors, at least for those of us driven to use the latest and (presumably) greatest.

Congratulations to Vancouver's Network Technology Professionals, chosen by Novell from more than 600 top-level Novell support partners as one of only three companies in Canada (and 18 in North America) to receive the company's Support Connection Service Excellence Awards. *


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan