Worthwhile CPU Alternatives
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1998. First
published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, July 1998
Last month, we looked at
Intel?s new Celeron
processor (originally code-named Covington), a dumbed-down version of
Pentium-II, aimed at the low-cost market.
We were less than impressed, since by leaving out the
cache, the 266 MHz Celeron?s performance suffers, in some cases testing
out even slower than last generation?s plain Pentium. Because Celeron
the Slot 1 design as a real P-II, it seems to aiming to get
to drop support for the Pentium-era Socket 7 design, dropping
with Intel?s competitors at the same time.
Intel?s new offerings for high and mid-range machines
were more impressive.
These fit in with the company?s new strategy of having separate product
lines for high, medium, and low-end systems rather than simply selling
older and older models for lower and lower prices.
At the top, look for yet another made-up name: Xeon.
While it sounds
like a cartoon Amazon warrior, Xeon is a processor aiming at the
network server market. Like the Pentium-II (and Celeron), it ships in a
cartridge, but unlike the other two product lines, it doesn?t fit into
a Slot-1 standard motherboard. Instead, Xeon requires a new, oversized
Slot-2 design. These new motherboards will all run at 100 MHz, speeding
up the whole system. As well, unlike the P-IIs, Xeon is optimized for
designs. Expect to see server models with up to eight processors,
to a maximum of two for P-II designs.
In addition, Xeon processors, running at 400 and 450
MHz, include a
beefier L2 cache than standard P-IIs, as much as 2 megs, and allows the
processor to access the cache at full speed, rather than half-speed as
with the P-II design. All these changes result in a much more powerful
system, but count on Intel to price Xeon accordingly (over $2,000US
While the server market is growing, these high-end
a small (though profitable) market segment. The bulk of the market is
between low-end and mid-range computers. Intel also upped the ante for
the mid-range, with its ramped up Pentium-IIs. While the speed
to 350 and 400 MHz, may seem only a modest improvement over the
333 MHz speed champs, this was accompanied with a new motherboard
the 440BX, allowing motherboards to run at 100 MHz, up from 66 MHz.
Speeding up the motherboard increases the speed at
which the CPU can
communicate with RAM, and could result in noticeable performance
There are, inevitably, a couple of things to note, however.
? Despite the promise that the speedier system bus,
combined with faster
processor will speed up overall system performance, initial testing
are less-impressive. When 350 and 400 MHz CPUs on systems with 100
were tested against 33 MHz CPUs on 66 MHz systems, the newer faster
offered only relatively modest improvements when running standard
productivity software. The faster systems shone compared to the older
when run as network servers, however, especially as the number of
accessing the network increased.
? The newer 100 MHz buses require faster memory than
the older systems.
And currently, these faster SDRAM strips are considerably more
than the more standard units. Installing 66 MHz SDRAM onto a faster
will not only slow the system down, but it may produce random (and hard
to diagnose) system errors and halts. At worst, it can prevent a system
from booting. The moral?make sure your fast system includes memory
for it. If you want the fastest system, you?re going to have to be
to pay for it.
Intel?s competition, however, are not simply sitting
back any longer
and letting Intel define the marketplace. In the past, this competition
tended to limit themselves to releasing lower-priced clones of Intel?s
last generation. Now, however, they are starting to take the initiative
on several fronts.
The three alternatives, Advanced Micro Designs (AMD),
Design Technologies), and Cyrix have united to, for the first time,
a set of new processor commands. The 3D-Now instruction set aim to
graphic and multimedia performance, if programmers write code that make
uses of the new instructions. 3D-Now will be supported by Microsoft?s
Direct-X 6.0, due later this summer, but will not be compatible with
MMX-2. But with MMX-2 not due until next year, the non-Intel companies
are hoping for a window of opportunity to become an established, and
The first released product featuring 3D-Now is AMD?s
333 and 350 MHz
K6-2 processors. While continuing to utilize the Pentium-style Socket
these CPUs will be able to run in motherboards with 100 MHz system
allowing systems to be designed offering high-end P-II performance at a
lower price. The original K6 processor was well-received?expect to see
a wide range of K6-2 models, if the company can successfully overcome
problems that limited output throughout 1997.
While we?re on the subject of competition to Intel, it
may be worthwhile
to step back from the PC-environment entirely, and take a look at the
You?ve probably seen the TV ads where Apple suggests
that the chips
in its G3 Macs are ?up to twice as fast? as Intel Pentium IIs running
the same speed (though the image in some ads of a P-II strapped onto a
snail suggests that they?d like us to replace the term ?running? with
Apple is basing its claim on a series of tests done by
using their ByteMarks benchmark tests. These tests do suggest that in
operations, the G3 PowerPC does surpass the P-II. Floating point
are also faster, though not by as wide a margin. But tests comparing
systems are less conclusive. MacAddict Magazine, for example, was
to report that on some Adobe Photoshop operations, the P-II machine
its G3 Mac counterpart.
Despite this ambiguity, Apple?s products are an
alternative to Intel-powered iron, and as they increasingly support
hardware standards, such as EIDE drives, PCI bus cards, and now
Serial Bus, the market for Mac add-on products is becoming more
and potentially profitable.