Speed, speed, and more speed. High-end computer users demand it, and every new PC processor promises to deliver it. That's certainly true of Intel's latest update to its Pentium 4 line of CPUs, formerly code-named Prescott, which the company has just released along with a 3.4-GHz version of its gaming-oriented Pentium 4 Extreme Edition.
Do these chips live up to their promises? That depends largely on the application you are running, according to preliminary results from a test system with parts provided by Intel. Our results do show, however, that systems with AMD's current high-end gaming chip, the Athlon 64 FX-51, remain the top performers.
Our reference system came with Windows XP Professional, 1GB of DDR400 SDRAM, a 160GB hard disk, and an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card packed with 128MB of RAM. We initially tested the system with Intel's new 3.2-GHz P4 3.20E (Prescott) chip (look for the telltale E at the end of chip names to distinguish new chips from older models when similar speeds overlap). Then we swapped in the new 3.4-GHz Pentium 4 EE gaming processor and retested the system.
By the Numbers
On PC WorldBench 4, both incarnations of the reference PC outscored systems with older-generation P4 CPUs. The P4 3.2E garnered a 131 score, beating the 126 score of a comparably equipped Alienware PC carrying the original 3.2-GHz Pentium 4. And the 3.4-GHz P4 EE earned a score of 134, whereas an Alienware PC packing the original 3.2-GHz version of the EE chip turned in a mark of 131. True, these are relatively minor differences, but if you consider that the older Alienware units had double the ATI graphics memory, too (256MB versus 128MB), the performance improvement seems noteworthy.
Nevertheless, a similarly configured 2.2-GHz Athlon 64 3200+ ABS unit also carrying 128MB of graphics memory outperformed both forms of the PC, with a score of 139 on PC WorldBench 4. (AMD introduced its new Athlon 64 3400+ as we went to press; watch for forthcoming test results.) Meanwhile, three previously tested Athlon 64 FX-51 PCs, each carrying 256MB of graphics memory, bested the Intel-based test PC, too, with an average score of 142.
In additional tests that compared older versus newer P4 chips, results were mixed (refer to the chart below for results of these and other tests).
Inside the New Pentium 4
Intel made several changes to the internal architecture of the new P4 E processor. Most important, according to Dean McCarron, principal analyst with Mercury Research, the company raised the L2 cache from 512KB to 1MB. In addition, the new chips include SSE3--new instructions that should improve the chips' performance on 3D rendering and complex mathematical calculations, he says.
The new chips mark Intel's transition to 90-nanometer production, which should lower the company's manufacturing costs, increase its production yields, and make its chips faster and more efficient. At launch, the chips will be available at speeds ranging from 2.8 GHz to 3.4 GHz.
Because the P4 chips use existing chip sets, you can just drop them into existing 875- and 865-based motherboards (double-check with your PC's vendor to be certain).
Your Bottom Line
The new Pentium 4 E definitely shows promise, and Intel's latest P4 EE remains a competitive option for gamers and other demanding users. Though you'll pay a premium for the P4 EE over the P4 E, the price difference between the 3.2-GHz and 3.4-GHz P4 EE should be reasonably low. And the price difference between the new P4 E and a regular Pentium 4 of the same speed should be negligible, according to McCarron. Intel has a big incentive to move to the new manufacturing process to keep its own costs down, he says, so it's likely to encourage consumers to make the move.
If you're not a die-hard Intel fan, however, you might consider AMD's latest chips. The company continues to upgrade its already strong Athlon 64 line with the newly released Athlon 64 3400+. The forthcoming Athlon 64 FX-53 should offer a further performance boost over today's FX-51. And you'll probably save money with the Athlon 64 chip, too, because similarly equipped systems generally run about $100 to $300 less than PCs equipped with comparable Pentium 4 chips.