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 recently, writing:

?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 suffers 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 NT.  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 will 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 best-kept secret. This spring, as part of the settlement of mutual lawsuits between Digital and Intel, Intel purchased the Hudson, Massachusetts Alpha fabrication plant for $700 million. While there has been some concern about Intel?s commitment to manufacturing a competitor?s CPU, Digital (now owned by Compaq), retained the right to license Alpha technology to other companies?and has 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 the previous Alpha 21164 model running at the same speed. Digital?s Aaron Baunch, 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 gigabyte speed (1000 MHz) within two years, and will offer double the integer and 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 than that?Compaq/Samsung subsidiary, Alpha Processors Inc (API), plans to bring out a model at that speed in 1999, according to a June 23rd report online by Cnet They also report that the company expects to move to a more efficient copper process, similar to the one developed by IBM.

Like Intel?s upcoming IA-64 Merced, which is now not expected before the year 2000 at the earliest, these Alpha models are already 64-bit processors. The problem is software?Alpha systems can run 64-bit Unix operating systems, but Windows NT, while available in a version optimized for Alpha, is currently limited to 32-bit support. Microsoft is working on a 64-bit Alpha version (and is planning to produce a 64-bit Merced version as well). NT64 is expected 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 technology.

There is an expectation that Compaq will build on its ownership of the Alpha by producing components, including chipsets and even motherboards, that can work with both AMD K6 and Alpha processors, expanding the potential market for Alpha. Such developments could lead to an expanded line of Alpha workstations. There were fears that Compaq only purchased Digital for its support network?the company has seemed intent on promoting Alpha as a high-powered, 64-bit workstation solution that, unlike Merced, is here now.

However, all is not rosy with Compaq and Alpha. With Alpha-powered machines representing a mere 5% of the NT workstation market, Compaq has recently cut its support for co-op marketing of Alpha-based products. Under these schemes, they shared in the advertising costs for server and workstation hardware powered by Alpha CPUs, but produced by 3rd-party companies?while Compaq is producing new Alpha-powered models (such as the Alpha-powered XP workstation) this makes it more difficult for other, typically smaller 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 performance than competitive products from AMD and others, or even compared to Intel?s Pentium MMX.

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, compared to the 100Mhz FSB P-II 400. Intel uses different grounding schemes, which 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 voltage 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 performance 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, which is superior to the FPU in the clone CPUs. So it offers the most band for 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 speed P-IIs, but at a considerably lower price.

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