As every dealer knows, it is the separate components of a computer a PC. VNU Labs put Intel, AMD and Cyrix to the test in the age-old battle between price and performance. that determine how fast it works. The hard disk, the graphics card, the memory - all of these components contribute to the actual speed. But it is the processor which plays the most important part. And apart from pure calculating power, it is the processor that is largely responsible for the price of the finished box.
The introduction of Intel's Pentium III and AMD's K6-III processors has changed the dynamics of the market in recent months, and now is a good a time to see how these various products measure up. For this round-up, the VNU Labs team tested 16 processors, with a clock frequency varying between 266MHz and 500MHz, looking specifically at their performance under everyday applications.
At the outset of testing it was intended that a price versus performance comparison would be made. But obtaining an accurate and up-to-date price for each processor was as easy as nailing jelly to the ceiling. Frequent price changes, discounts for bulk purchases and a myriad of other factors rendered this comparison somewhat futile. Further price decreases are expected shortly and a fall in price usually has a domino effect: as soon as Intel decreases its prices the competitors have to do the same.
However, price can be discussed in general terms. All processors up to the Pentium II and, to a lesser extent, the PII 350 and K6-III, have a healthy price-performance balance. After that, the gap starts to close and every percentage of extra performance is worth a lot of money. In other words, for the extra performance, which the Pentium II 400 and 450, and Pentium III 450 and 500 deliver, a comparatively large amount of money must be paid.
In the middle segment are the Celerons and the K6-2s. It is worth noting that a Celeron 400 delivers a higher performance than a K6-2 450 while, on average, costing less. In the lower segment are the Cyrix processors and the Celeron 266. At the low-end, the Slot 1 motherboards used by the Intel processors tested here are more expensive than the Socket 7 motherboards for the Cyrix and AMD chips.
Together with some well chosen components, a PC based on a Cyrix processor can be built for less than £400. In doing so, remember that even the slowest processor in this test is faster than what most people have at home at the moment. So if you have a customer looking for a cheap PC - to write a thesis, do some administrative work or simply run Microsoft Office and be able to access the internet - then this is not a bad choice because people usually buy too much processing power, not too little.
The higher segment seems to belong to the market leader Intel. The Pentium III 500 is the unrivalled winner as far as performance is concerned. But the consumer is the loser because of the exorbitant price Intel asks and which the reseller often adds to.
At the turning point between the two segments is the AMD K6- III 400 - faster than a Celeron 400MHz but slower than a Pentium II 400MHz. However, the AMD processor undercuts the latter by quite some margin on price.
What will the future bring?
Since the tests were conducted, the latest Intel Celeron with a clock speed of 433MHz has arrived on the market. Moreover, a new version of the Pentium III will hit the streets soon - not a 533MHz as thought before, but a 550MHz. The 533MHz version will only be brought on the market in the fourth quarter.
Later this year, the Pentium III processors will be produced, which have a changed core design - codenamed Coppermine - and modified specifications.
Intel will move to 0.18micron production technology and the bus clock will be raised to 133MHz. The chip giant, however, is trying to keep everything quiet for as long as possible. Well, how can the fact that the Pentium III at 533MHz performs better than one at 550 MHz, be explained to customers?
In the meantime, AMD is chasing hard on Intel's heels with the K6-III and before long with the K7. Even though there are doubts as to AMD's wisdom in switching over to the Slot A design, it will be interesting to see if the company can realise its promises and what problems, if any, the newly designed floating point unit will have to overcome.
Cyrix and IDT are also working hard to push their new generation of processors onto the market as soon as possible - the M3, codenamed Jalapeno, and the Winchip 4, respectively. Concrete specifications and launch dates are yet to be announced.
Criteria for testing
The 16 processors tested can be divided into two groups - Intel and non-Intel. All Intel processors - Celeron, Pentium II and Pentium III - are of the Slot 1 type, while all AMD and Cyrix processors are of the Socket 7 type. Unfortunately, IDT did not respond to repeated requests for cooperation, so the Winchip could not be tested.
Socket 7 processors are flat, square and fitted with many metal pins.
Slot 1 chips are right-angled, fitted with a row of connectors and are pushed into a slot in an upright position, as are expansion boards and memory modules. Because the connection differs, it was not possible to test all processors on the same mainboard.
For the two different types of processors, two different motherboards were needed. VNU Labs chose two boards manufactured by Asus. The remaining components of the test system were identical to eliminate as many variables as possible. The test programme used was Sysmark98.
TEST SYSTEM SPECIFICATION
Graphics card: Diamond Viper V550 revision 1.93, 16Mb
Hard disk: 8.4 Gb Western Digital
Memory: 128Mb PC-100 SDRam
Slot 1 type processor
Motherboard: Asus P2B AGP
Chip set: 440BX
Bios version: 1006 and 1008 (PIII)
Socket 7 type processor
Motherboard: Asus PSA Super 7 Chipset: Ali Aladdin V
Bios version: 1004.
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