First Tests: Intel's 3.2-GHz 'Prescott' P4

Intel's anticipated Pentium 4 refresh, code-named "Prescott," makes its debut this week, demonstrating a jump over earlier P4s but still slightly lagging an Advanced Micro Devices Athlon 64 system in early tests.

The 3.2-GHz PF 3.20E (Prescott) is being released along with a 3.4-GHz version of its gaming-oriented Pentium 4 Extreme Edition (the Pentium 4 EE). They have been touted as speedy performers because of a larger cache.

At launch, the chips will be available at speeds ranging from 2.8 GHz to 3.4 GHz. Intel expects to ship them to PC vendors late in the first quarter, so systems are unlikely to appear for several weeks. PC World conducted tests on a reference system running the new chips, which are unarguably speedy. Correction: Several vendors are immediately shipping Prescott systems; only the 3.4-GHz Prescott PCs will ship later in this quarter.

Test Results

The reference system for testing 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. PC World ran tests first 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 with similar speeds); then, for the second round, testers swapped in the new 3.4-GHz Pentium 4 EE gaming processor.

On PC WorldBench 4, both incarnations of the reference PC outscored systems with older-generation P4 CPUs. The P4 3.2E garnered a score of 131, beating the score of 126 by 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 also had double the ATI graphics memory (256MB versus 128MB), the performance improvement seems noteworthy.

Nevertheless, a similarly configured 2-GHz Athlon 64 3200+ ABS unit with 128MB of graphics memory outperformed both forms of the P4 with a score of 139 on PC WorldBench 4. Also, three previously tested Athlon 64 FX-51 PCs, each carrying 256MB of graphics memory, bested the Intel-based reference PC, too, with an average score of 142.

AMD recently introduced its new Athlon 64 3400+ CPU, so more tests are pending.

Inside the New P4

Intel made several changes to the internal architecture of the new P4 E processor. Most important, the company raised the L2 cache from 512KB to 1MB, says Dean McCarron, principal analyst with Mercury Research. In addition, the new chips include new instructions--called SSE3--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. This should lower the company's manufacturing costs, increase its production yields, and make its chips faster and more efficient, executives have said.

Because the P4 chips use existing chip sets, you can just drop them into existing 875- and 865-based motherboards. Do-it-yourselfers would be wise to double-check with their PC's vendor to be certain.

CPU Overview

The new Pentium 4 E definitely shows promise, and Intel's latest P4 EE remains a competitive option for gamers and other demanding users.

Although 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 difference in cost between a 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, so it's likely to encourage consumers to make the move, he says.

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 above-mentioned 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.

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