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Review: AMD, Intel processors do battle

PC World

By David Essex

(IDG) -- AMD and Intel are at war again, this time with next-generation versions of their mobile Pentium III and Athlon processors. Both feature hot new technologies that should soon boost desktop performance. And both have something to offer to the right buyers.

Athlon 4 is based on a core (code-named Palomino) due in new desktop CPUs this fall and already used in Athlon MP CPUs for dual-processor workstations and servers. Introduced at clock speeds between 850 MHz and 1 GHz, Athlon 4 is AMD's first challenge to Intel's line of Mobile Pentium III CPUs in the high-end notebook market.

Intel's answer: The Mobile Pentium III Processor-M (formerly code-named Tualatin). Running at speeds up to 1.13 GHz, the Pentium III-M is Intel's first mass-market chip to use a .13-micron manufacturing process, which makes it smaller, faster, cooler-running, and less power-hungry than any current .18-micron-process CPU. Already used in some Pentium III server CPUs, the .13-micron process will migrate to Pentium IIIs for small desktops and to the next version of Intel's flagship Pentium 4 desktop CPUs (code-named Northwood), probably by year's end. That could reenergize the desktop contest, where Athlons now regularly trounce Pentium 4s.

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In our tests of the first laptops with Athlon 4 and PIII-M processors, the new Intel chip showed more pure computing muscle. On the other hand, the Athlon may be a better buy -- though it's certainly not the Mobile PIII killer AMD was probably hoping for.

The Athlon 4 introduces three important design innovations. Its 256KB Level 2 cache adds a prefetch feature that AMD claims will improve the performance of existing software by 5 to 15 percent by preloading some instructions from RAM. A set of 52 new graphics instructions, called 3DNow Professional, supports new and upcoming games and graphics-intensive apps that take advantage of Intel's Streaming SIMD Extensions.

Also new is an enhanced version of PowerNow, originally introduced on AMD's K6-2+ and K6-III+ chips for lower-end notebooks as the company's answer to Intel's SpeedStep power-saving technology. You can set PowerNow to adjust the CPU clock speed depending on application demand, or to maximize either clock speed or battery power. On Athlon 4s (and on new mobile Durons), AMD says, PowerNow adjusts more rapidly than on previous chips.

On the PIII-M, the smaller core made possible by the .13-micron process allows Intel to boost the chip's L2 cache from 256KB to 512KB, promising even better performance as more instructions become accessible in the cache. In addition, the PIII-M and its companion 830 chip set boost the front-side bus from 100 MHz to 133 MHz, another speed enhancer. (The Athlon 4's bus speed is 200 MHz, like its predecessor's, but the first notebooks that will be equipped with DDR memory to take advantage of the faster bus aren't expected before year's end.)

Intel isn't conceding the battery-management challenge, either. The PIII-M enhances SpeedStep by adding demand-based switching between different power-use states. Yet another new feature, called Deeper Sleep, dynamically lowers the processor voltage as system demands decrease -- for example, when a screen display stops changing.

The Intel chip emerged as the leader in our tests -- not surprising given its fast clock speed and larger secondary cache. A preproduction Dell Inspiron 8100 running Windows 2000 and carrying a 1.13-GHz PIII-M and 256MB of SDRAM ran up the highest PC WorldBench 2000 score ever for a notebook, earning a mark of 210 on our tests of office applications, communications software, graphics programs, and multitasking. Its advantage of nearly 15 percent over the average score earned by five previously tested non-Tualatin 1-GHz PIII notebooks (also running Windows 2000) is quite impressive -- and a bit higher than the chip's 13 percent clock-speed increase.

Our preproduction Athlon 4-based Compaq Presario 1200 equipped with 128MB of SDRAM -- and running the slower Windows Me OS -- matched the performance of earlier mobile PIIIs, but did no better. Its PC WorldBench 2000 score of 152 put the Presario in a statistical tie with two Windows Me notebooks using 1-GHz mobile PIIIs.

Neither chip performed impressively in battery life testing. Despite the Athlon 4's inherently less power-efficient .18-micron design, the Presario 1200 lasted 2 hours, 22 minutes in full-performance mode -- 14 minutes (almost 11 percent) longer than the Inspiron 8100. The machines had virtually identical battery lives in automatic power-saving mode: Their scores of 2:36 (Presario) and 2:34 (Inspiron) were on the low end for the notebooks we've tested.

Of course, you pay for the power the PIII-M delivers -- and for all the beefy accoutrements that go with it.

With a street price of $3,206, the PIII-M-based Inspiron 8100 is clearly designed for users looking for desktop replacements or game mavens who demand the latest audio, video, and graphics. Besides carrying a whopping 256MB of SDRAM, the 8100 comes with a top-of-the-line NVidia GeForce2 Go notebook graphics chip -- packed with 32MB of DDR SDRAM -- as well as a supersharp UXGA (1600-by-1200-pixel) display. IBM's new 48GB Travelstar 48GH hard drive is huge for a notebook component, and the combination 6X DVD and 4X/4X/24X CD-RW drive is more than adequate for playing DVD movies and recording multimedia.

In contrast, the $1,918 Compaq remains firmly grounded in the Presario 1200 midrange home-office tradition, with 128MB of 133-MHz SDRAM, a 20GB Hitachi hard drive, and ATI Rage Mobility graphics with 8MB of SDRAM. Like the Inspiron, it has a 6X DVD and 4X/4X/24X CD-RW drive.

Intel says Compaq, Gateway, IBM, Toshiba, and other vendors will introduce PIII-M notebooks this fall. At press time, HP was the only vendor aside from Compaq that had announced an Athlon 4-based notebook in the United States.

What's next in mobile computing? Intel's road map includes higher clock speeds and new low-voltage and ultra-low-voltage models starting at 750 and 600 MHz, respectively -- an apparent rejoinder to Transmeta's similarly positioned Crusoe chip. Also expected next year is a mobile version of the company's true next-generation chip, the Pentium 4. AMD plans to counter with a .13-micron Athlon 4, code-named Thoroughbred, by the first half of 2002, followed later that year by silicon-on-insulator technology that AMD says will increase power efficiency by up to 30 percent.

With Intel's PIII-M stealing the performance thunder, somewhat bulkier Athlon 4 notebooks might have to settle for a sweet spot just behind the leading edge, in systems priced in the vicinity of $2,000. They're the better choice if you need a serviceable platform for office apps and the occasional game or DVD movie. But if desktop-class multimedia is your style, or if you want the most powerful processor money can buy, go for a loaded PIII-M system, reasonably priced at around $3,000. Either way, consumers are the winners in this chip race.





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