A Fast Bus, but Catch It Later
Intel's new 875P chip set provides Pentium 4 PCs with an 800-MHz frontside bus and dual-channel DDR400 SDRAM memory--but we saw little performance gain over an older chip set in our lab tests of three of the first new systems, except in a few very demanding applications like AutoCAD. Previously, high-end P4 systems used a 533-MHz frontside bus and RDRAM memory. Note that Intel has also released a 3-GHz P4 to match the new bus.
Meanwhile, AMD Athlon XP 3000+ units remain faster in several tests and less costly than the new P4 machines.
PCs with the new chip set carry no price premium, but if you're an Intel fan, there's another reason to hold off: A big P4 improvement is coming later this year that should take greater advantage of the 875P.
So what's the deal with the new bus? It's a marketing tool for now, but it helps Intel prepare for the future, says Kevin Krewell, general manager at research firm In-Stat/MDR. Most of today's software does not push the P4 hard enough to require this bus and its extra bandwidth, he says. (The older 533-MHz bus has a maximum throughput of 4.2GB per second; the 800-MHz one tops out at 6.4 GBps.)
That certainly seemed true in tests of three preproduction 3-GHz P4 PCs with the 875P: a $2999 Dell Dimension 8300, a $3845 Falcon Northwest Mach V, and a $3499 Gateway 700XL, all with 1GB of DDR400 SDRAM. For comparison, we tested a similarly configured Mach V with a 3.06-GHz P4, a 533-MHz frontside bus, and 1GB of PC1066 RDRAM.
Though the Falcon with the 800-MHz bus ran
However, the 800-MHz bus and DDR400 RAM did seem to yield a noticeable boost in tests that push system and memory strength: the AutoCAD test and the Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Unreal Tournament game tests. For example, the newer Falcon zipped through the AutoCAD test in 256 seconds, beating the comparison Falcon's time of 265 seconds. The Dell finished in just 253 seconds. (All PCs used a high-end ATI Radeon graphics card.)
In most other tests, the new bus made little difference.
Overall, AMD Athlon XP 3000+ systems still come out on top on
As for value, while all three systems deliver high-end components, the Falcon unit appears pricey, even considering it's an enthusiast model that has two 36GB drives in RAID 0, a DVD-RW drive, and top-quality Monsoon Planar Media 14 2.1 speakers. A comparable Falcon unit with an Athlon XP 3000+ saves you $150.
There's more to the 875P than bus and memory improvements. It also includes support for gigabit ethernet, Serial ATA hard drives, and two-hard-drive RAID setups. Missing is Rambus memory (RDRAM) support as Intel moves away from this pricey, controversial memory to DDR.
Around the time you read this, Intel plans to ship similar but budget-oriented chip sets, code-named Springdale. These chip sets will allow for 2.4- to 2.8-GHz P4 PCs with the 800-MHz bus, and offer enhanced integrated graphics and Intel's hyperthreading technology, analysts say.
Power desktop users favoring Intel-based PCs may want to wait until the third quarter of this year. Krewell says that's the expected debut for a revamped P4 code-named Prescott (you can upgrade PCs with the 875P chip set to Prescott later if you need to buy Intel systems now). Prescott, likely to launch at 3.4-GHz, will double the P4's Level 2 cache and improve hyperthreading. And Prescott PCs should more fully take advantage of the 875P's higher-bandwidth memory and 800-MHz bus, Krewell adds.