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PC World

Athlon vs. Pentium III: Duel at 750 MHz


December 21, 1999
Web posted at: 9:40 a.m. EST (1440 GMT)

by Anush Yegazarian

(IDG) -- The latest lap in the chip speed sweepstakes shows the race is still tight. The first hands-on evaluation of systems based on 750-MHz chips, now available from both Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, finds them to be essentially identical in performance.

Of course, Intel has jumped ahead on the track by releasing its 800-MHz Pentium III as well, months ahead of schedule, and we're eager to put it to the test. Watch this space in the future.

Athlon vs. Pentium

We made a head-to-head comparison of the 750-MHz Intel Pentium III and AMD Athlon-750. Each company built a system for us with a shipping version of its newest processor, and Compaq sent us a preproduction Presario based on the Athlon-750. All three systems were terrific performers on business apps, graphics, and multitasking.

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Do we recommend that you run out and buy one of these the day they become available? Not necessarily.

Power users who need every last bit of speed to perform complex calculations, create and animate 3D models, and develop multimedia content should stick to the top processor offerings. For the rest of us, looking one or even two speed grades down for each processor (either 733- and 700-MHz Pentium IIIs or 700- and 650-MHz Athlons) may buy a better value. You'll save $200 to $300 (or more), and you'll lose only a barely noticeable 2 to 10 percent in performance for standard office applications like Word and Excel. And, of course, you can save much more by settling for slower systems that are probably more than adequate for your day-to-day tasks

Fast and pricey

The Athlon 750-MHz Compaq Presario 5900Z costs $3335 when loaded with 128MB of SDRAM, 27GB of storage, both DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, an NVidia GeForce 256-based graphics card with 32MB of SDRAM, and a 19-inch monitor. With a 54GB hard drive, its street price is $3726. It even comes with a Diamond Rio MP3 player.

Comparably configured Intel-based 750-MHz systems should be about the same price, give or take $200. More mainstream configurations, with 20GB hard disks, DVD-ROM drives, and 17-inch monitors should sell for a more palatable $2500.

You'll see the first 800-MHz Pentium III systems from Dell, Gateway, and Hewlett-Packard. IBM and Polywell are preparing 750-MHz Athlon and Pentium III systems. At least for the moment, Gateway does not plan to sell Athlon-based systems.

Racing at 750 MHz: Drop the checkered flag

Here's what we tested: AMD and Intel each sent systems with 128MB of memory, an NVidia TNT2 Ultra-based graphics card with 32MB of memory, and Windows 98. AMD's unit had a 20GB disk while Intel's box came with a 17GB disk.

On PC WorldBench 98, the Intel reference box (which uses fast Rambus memory) edged ahead of AMD's system by an insignificant 3 percent. The numbers: AMD scored 305 and Intel, 315.

The Presario was slower (scoring 289 on WorldBench) because Compaq adds programs like Service Connect (part of its support software) and an antivirus program to make its systems a bit more user-friendly. We test machines the way they are sent to us, and those apps degrade performance a bit.

We expected to find a difference between the two reference systems on our Multitasking test, where Intel PIII systems with Rambus memory have led handily in the past. However, they finished essentially even: Intel scored 275 and AMD, 272.

We think that's due to recent improvements in AMD's 751 chip set, which was not fully optimized for use with the Athlon at launch. Here, too, the Presario, which also used the new version of the chip set, ran third. It was presumably hampered by its additional software.

Good for graphics apps

On our AutoCAD and Photoshop application tests, Intel pulled ahead slightly, but again the gap was too small for most users to notice during typical office tasks. If your work involves applications that do a lot of complex 2D calculations like AutoCAD, you'll typically benefit from greater processor speed.

We saw a difference of 14.9 percent between a Pentium III-750 and a PIII-667 PC on our AutoCAD test; that translates to a minute and ten seconds. It was a less dramatic jump--11.6 percent--from the 650-MHz to the 750-MHz Athlon PCs.

The AMD PC nabbed the top spot on the 3DMark test, which measures system performance in a gaming environment. The difference here, too, was less than 4 percent--you wouldn't see it as you're working or playing. (This test takes advantage of both Intel's SSE extensions and AMD's 3DNow instructions.) All three 750-MHz systems trailed our best-ever performer on this test, the Pentium III-733 Micron Millennia Max. We suspect that the 133-MHz front-side bus and accompanying 133-MHz VC SDRAM memory in the Micron unit contributed to its result.

Coming attractions

A few years ago, 1-GHz processors seemed a far-off dream. Now, we expect both AMD and Intel to release such processors in 2000.

Besides matching the Athlon-750 with its PIII-750, Intel has now unveiled its 800-MHz Pentiums. Expect 800-MHz Athlons shortly. AMD has boasted that 900-MHz Athlons could appear late in the first quarter or early in the second.

And Intel is working on a chip set that supports 133-MHz SDRAM. That should enable systems that perform almost as well as those using more expensive Rambus-based memory.

We don't know who is going to win the race to a gigahertz, but the current crop of chips powers systems that will satisfy the most demanding users. Does it really matter if it's Intel or AMD inside at this point? Thanks to competition, you'll get top performance at a price you can afford.

Intel launches fastest Pentium III chip yet
December 20, 1999
Intel to push 800 MHz
December 16, 1999
Coming attractions: The processors of 2000
December 8, 1999
AMD takes speed lead with 750-MHz Athlon chip
November 29, 1999
Playing games at Comdex
November 23, 1999

Intel launches 800-MHz Pentium III
AMD takes speed lead with Athlon 750
AMD ready to challenge Intel
New Athlon chip rocks Intel
Review: AMD Athlon
Dell, Compaq, others line up behind Intel's PIII chips
A PIII upgrade for aging machines
(PC World Online)
Fast chips, fast orders
(PC World Online)
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