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Pentium 4 fails to outpace Athlon, testers say

Intel's new 1.5-GHz chip doesn't provide a real performance advantage and is often slower when compared with AMD's fastest chip, benchmark testers and analysts say.

Intel's initial Pentium 4 chips released Monday don't provide a real performance advantage and are often slower when compared with the fastest Athlon chips from Advanced Micro Devices, benchmark testers and analysts say.

Pentium 4: What's inside 
• The initial chips run at 1.5 GHz and 1.4 GHz, with the 2 GHz version set to arrive in the third quarter of 2001. Higher speeds are achieved through a 20-stage pipeline, or data assembly line, that is twice as long as the Pentium III pipeline.

• The system bus, the chip's principal data conduit, jumps to 400 MHz from the Pentium III's 133 MHz.

• A "rapid execution engine," or chip-within-a-chip, runs at twice the speed of the processor to accelerate the manipulation of commonly used data.

• An "execution trace cache" adds more in-chip memory. It also neutralizes some drag caused by the doubling of the pipeline.

• The processor includes 144 new multimedia instructions.

• The chip is expected to improve media compression and multimedia. Standard applications, however, will likely see few tangible benefits.

Consequently, the first Pentium 4 chips don't seem to be worth their price right now, they said.

Benchmark tests posted by review sites such as Sharky Extreme on Monday indicate that the 1.5-GHz Pentium 4 does outscore the 1.2-GHz Athlon on the "Quake III" game, some video and media editing applications, and relatively theoretical tests on memory bandwidth or scientific calculations.

But when it comes to many real-world applications and games other than "Quake III," the difference is inconsequential. On a number of benchmark tests, the first version of Pentium 4 underscores Athlon and even the Pentium III.

"For today's buyer, the Pentium 4 simply doesn't make sense. It's slower than the competition in just about every area," wrote Anand Lal Shimpi in Anandtech, a review site.

The Pentium 4 "is not a body blow to AMD by any means," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. "The Athlon will be better for productivity applications, which is kind of funny because AMD has yet to establish a base in the commercial market...In the personal productivity applications, the Pentium 4 is showing no benefits over the Pentium III."

The relatively uninspiring results that accompanied the launch of the chip will be debated for weeks and set the stage for another rousing year of competition between the two companies in 2001. Because of the new architecture behind the Pentium 4, Intel will likely rapidly increase the speed of the chip. AMD, however, will be difficult to outrun.

The product road maps, combined with the performance results, could also pave the way for AMD to finally get into the corporate world. AMD will have chipsets to make multiprocessor computers out in the first quarter. Intel won't be able to offer a two-processor solution for Pentium 4 until the second quarter.

Workstation buyers tend to scrutinize benchmarks more closely and often demand multiprocessing. As a result, some major computer makers may shift from an all-Intel lineup to get a jump on the competition.

"I'd be disappointed if AMD didn't get a workstation win," Brookwood said. "What AMD has lacked is dual processing."

A major contributing cause of the flat benchmark results comes from the 20-stage pipeline of the Pentium 4. The pipeline is the processor's equivalent to an assembly line. At 20 stages, the Pentium 4's pipeline is twice as long as the one found in the Pentium III and longer than the 15-stage pipeline found in the Athlon. With a longer pipeline, data simply has to travel through more steps; and, if a mistake occurs, the processor has to do more backtracking.

Although a long pipeline is internally less efficient, it allows designers to push the clock speeds faster, noted Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. The Pentium 4 is "a lot more forward thinking," he said.

Intel's chip may shine more brightly in the future when applications tailored to the chip's architecture emerge, such as applications that depend on audio or video compression.

"The long-term goal is much higher clock frequency and streaming media," said Kevin Krewell, an analyst at MicroDesign Resources. When the Pentium Pro first came out, for example, it performed worse than other chips on the basic applications of the time.

Intel is already talking about goosing the Pentium 4. A 2-GHz chip is expected to be out by the third quarter of next year.

Still, that will likely lead only to relative performance parity, predicted Anandtech. By then, AMD will have a 1.5-GHz Athlon.

Part of AMD's ability to keep the performance gap tight also comes from the company's adoption of double-data rate (DDR) DRAM, a high-speed form of today's standard computer memory. Without DDR, Athlon would be lagging, agreed Anandtech and Brookwood.

The Pentium 4, meanwhile, will be coupled only with Rambus until toward the end of 2001. While Rambus memory isn't creating a performance problem, it does add expense, a problem with the Pentium 4-based computers in general. Even though the Pentium 4 costs less than the typical new processor from Intel, the competitive landscape is harsher than in the past.

Pentium 4 chips cost $819 each in quantities of 1,000.

"For the rest of us who pinch pennies each month just to make rent, the Pentium 4 makes for great reading material," wrote Sharky Extreme.