The Knight Line

Forward Into the Past?

Dan Knight - 2001.10.31

The Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times," certainly seems to apply to the personal computer industry. Some very interesting changes have taken place over the past year.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

I'm not the only one who can't fathom the mindset behind Intel's Pentium 4 processor. It's been called a marketing dream and an engineering nightmare. The general consensus is that a Pentium 4 is about two-thirds as efficient as a Pentium III at the same clock speed. Put another way, a 2 GHz P4 would have about the same performance as a 1.35 GHz PIII - and it really shouldn't be that way.

There are several ways to make a CPU more powerful. Clock speed is only one of them, but it's the one the average Joe believes to be the most important. Sorry, Joe, but you're wrong. Some examples:

  • The 486 included an on-chip cache and FPU, making it much more efficient. A 20 MHz 486 could hold its own against a 40 MHz 386. The same applies to the 20 MHz Motorola 68040 vs. their 40 MHz 68030.
  • The PowerPC G3 was explicitly designed to run existing software more efficiently than the earlier PowerPC 603 processor. In fact, they did such a good job that it eclipsed the PPC 604. Overall, a G3/233 offered about the same performance as a 350 MHz 604e.

As a rule of thumb, the next generation processor will be more efficient at the same MHz rating, with just a few significant exceptions:

  1. The Pentium MMX didn't run existing code any better than the Pentium. It was better at a certain class of tasks, but only if the software supported MMX. But it wasn't any less efficient than the original Pentium.
  2. The PowerPC G4 added AltiVec instructions, much like Intel's MMX instructions. Again, certain tasks could really fly with software specifically written for the "Velocity Engine." Other than that, it offered comparable performance to the much less costly G3.
  3. The Pentium 4 has such incredibly deep pipes that it ends up doing just the opposite of the PowerPC G3. Where IBM and Motorola had tweaked their design for optimum performance with existing software, Intel's latest is much less efficient with most existing code than the Pentium III it hopes to replace.

Intel is apparently backpedalling on their plans to discontinue the Pentium III - too many IT types know it's the only viable Intel processor for servers.

Another Step Forward, Two More Back

The latest revelation is that Windows XP, which is based on the same NT kernel as Windows 2000, is up to 50% slower under load than Win2k, the operating system Microsoft plans on discontinuing (along with Windows Me) in June 2002.

It's a real shame that the operating system Microsoft envisioned as Unix's most serious competitor has grown less efficient - and by such an extent. In addition to privacy, activation, bloat, and other concerns about WinXP, users can also expect less performance.

P4 + XP: Two Steps Backward

As Michelle Klein-Häss noted, WinXP is a "Must Not" Upgrade. Combine XP's reduced performance with the underperforming Pentium 4, and the "latest, greatest" hardware can easily be slower than an older Pentium III system running Windows 2000.

That's not how it's supposed to be.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

AMD has become a serious competitor ever since they released the Athlon, since it compares favorably with the Pentium III in both price and performance. Their new Athlon XP and MP processors, unlike the Pentium 4, offer improved performance without MHz inflation.

Tom's Hardware Guide has just posted a "monster comparison" of 12 CPUs, including several Athlon XP and Pentium 4 variants. They declare the Athlon XP 1800+ the victor over the Pentium 4/2000 - and the Athlon tops Intel's 2 GHz processor at a more casual 1.53 GHz clock speed. It's only too bad they didn't include a single PIII (preferably the 1.2 GHz Tualatin version with its 512K L2 cache) to round out the comparison.

Anyhow, with Intel leading the way with less efficient CPUs, it's a joy to see Athlon do things right by offering more efficient processors that provide better performance with existing software.

A Half-step Forward, One to the Side

On the other side of the CPU/OS divide, Mac OS X version 10.1 has significantly improved performance over the 10.0.4 revision. While it would be very nice to see new versions of the G3 and G4 with 512K (or even 1 MB) integrated caches and also see Motorola and IBM run them past the 1 GHz mark, these lower speed processors offer the same kind of efficiency seen in the Athlon line - the MHz rating doesn't fairly reflect their level of performance.

On the other hand, Mac users face a real quandary about switching to Mac OS X, much like Windows users faced a few years back when Windows NT was coming into its own. There are still a lot of printers and other devices that don't have OS X drivers. Waiting for that and OS X versions of crucial programs like Microsoft Office and Photoshop is slowing adoption of what could be the most popular Unix-based OS yet and the ultimate successor to the "classic" Mac OS as the main rival to Microsoft Windows.

Conclusion

We'll make no bones about it: Low End PC is not a Windows advocacy site. We understand that Windows is ubiquitous and that most Windows users couldn't switch to Linux or BeOS (let alone go out and buy a Mac) if they wanted to, since they need programs only available under Windows.

Much as we'd like to see you try an alternate OS, the least we can do is warn you against making mistakes - and we firmly believe that both the Pentium 4 and Windows XP are mistakes you should avoid. If you're looking at new hardware, take a long hard look at Celeron and Duron on the economy side, Pentium III and (especially) Athlon XP on the performance side. If you're looking for a better version of Windows, you're probably best off following Klein-Häss' advice and using Windows 2000.

The other factor, of course, is the low-end nature of the hardware we focus on. A lot of older hardware will be overwhelmed with WinXP. If you have to run XP (new corporate standard), don't go Pentium 4. And if you need to upgrade to a more efficient CPU to support XP (or even Win2k), take a good long look at the Athlon XP and MP option. LEPC

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