Will your next PC be a Pentium III?
Pentium III PCs run at dizzying speeds -- and accelerate some interesting new apps.
February 24, 1999
by Scott Spanbauer
(IDG) -- You probably think Intel is just about to release the Pentium III. But read the label, and you'll see that it's actually the Pentium !!!
Of course, microprocessors rarely inspire sentiments commensurate with three exclamation points. Does the company's long-awaited top-of-the-line chip live up to its breathless billing?
Systems based on the PIII-500 gush speed, outrunning all other Windows 98 desktop machines we've tested. But the new chip offers more than the next step on the megahertz staircase.
Intel has also given the PIII a total of 70 new processor instructions designed to accelerate specially written games, Internet plug-ins, graphics, and speech recognition applications.
Preliminary tests by the PC World Test Center show that this technology may add real muscle to those tasks. And this doesn't look to be a reprise of the 1997 Pentium MMX launch -- this time, more software will be available that actually uses the new capabilities. Much of that software, at least initially, will cater more to gamers and multimedia mavens than to serious business users.
A price premium
We tested three preproduction Dell, Gateway, and Micron PIII-500 systems for this report. While prices (and systems) won't be available until later this week, it looks like PIII-500 machines will generally command large!!! prices.
We also tested preproduction PIII-450 machines from Gateway and Micron, which are almost as fast as the PIII-500 machines. All five systems are loaded: 128MB of memory, hard drives as large as 22GB, big monitors, and the latest 3D graphics boards with 16MB of SDRAM.
If you do image editing or other CPU-intensive work, covet the ultimate gaming machine, download and devour every browser plug-in you see, or value having this month's fastest desktop, you may already have your wallet out.
But not everyone needs to spring for a Pentium III. If you work mostly with Microsoft Office-style apps, e-mail, and a Web browser, you can buy a very fast, feature-packed Celeron-400 PC for a mere $1500. An even faster 433-MHz Celeron chip will arrive in mid-March, on systems selling for about the same price.
There's one other newcomer to consider as well: AMD's K6-III processor. It offers sprightly performance and its own brand of 3D acceleration. And, again, take this important note: All the PIII machines we tested debut formally on February 26 and you may not be able to order them until then.
Inside the PIII
Despite its name, the PIII doesn't represent a generational advance the way the Pentium or Pentium II did.
Those chips introduced fundamental changes in processing, cache, and system bus technologies. The Pentium III is basically a Pentium II processor, with the same 512KB off-chip secondary cache and 100-MHz system bus.
The rationale for the new name? Marketing!!!
That said, the collection of 70 new CPU instructions that Intel calls Streaming SIMD Extensions does set the PIII apart from its predecessors. The instructions target CPU-intensive jobs -- image filtering, 3D geometry calculations, and waveform analysis -- that would tax even a fast Pentium II.
This change is similar to the addition of MMX instructions to Pentium processors a few years ago. And just as new applications had to be written to take advantage of MMX instructions, apps must be rewritten or updated to utilize the new SIMD Extensions. Existing software will run no faster on a PIII-450 system than on a PII-450.
The Pentium III's other notable feature: Intel assigns each PIII chip it produces a unique, hard-coded ID number. In January, Intel announced this Processor ID as a boon to corporate asset management and e-commerce. Privacy advocates cried foul. Intel said it will leave this capability turned off as a default, but the controversy continues.
Blazing business apps
There's no controversy about the PIII-500's capability to sprint. Micron's Millennia Max 500 turned in a PC WorldBench 98 score of 237, the best Windows 98 score we've ever seen. This PC darts through business applications about 11 percent faster than the average PII-450 machine, and about 17 percent faster than the average PII-400 -- and those machines are hardly slowpokes.
Meanwhile, Dell's Dimension XPS T500 and Gateway's E-4200 500 came within an eyelash of the Millennia Max 500's performance, with PC WorldBench 98 scores of 234 and 235 respectively.
The number 500 draws a crowd, but before you jump on that bandwagon, take a close look at how the PIII-450 systems from Gateway and Micron did: They garnered WorldBench scores of 218 and 219 -- only about 7 percent slower than the PIII-500 systems.
That's a negligible difference as you brood over a Word or Excel document. And these systems cost substantially less.
Some system vendors, including Micron and Gateway, are dropping previous Pentium II-450 models in favor of similarly priced Pentium III-450 systems. They'll continue to sell PII-450s to corporate customers who prefer to standardize on the same CPU.
The PIII-500 systems looked lively in our regular suite of graphics tests, which uses apps like PowerPoint 97 that aren't enhanced for the Streaming SIMD instructions. But keep in mind that the system's graphics board plays a huge role in these tasks.
Gateway's 500-MHz system took top honors in all but one test. But the differences between the PIII-500 systems were imperceptible without a stopwatch, except in Caligari's TrueSpace 4.1 modeling application, where the Gateway really shone.
Clearly, the extra cost of a PIII-500 system doesn't buy much additional performance on these programs, compared to a PIII-450. For example, the Gateway PIII-450 took only 5 seconds longer to complete the PowerPoint test than Gateway's PIII-500. A PIII-450 with a good graphics board shouldn't disappoint anyone.
The PIIIs have newer, better graphics boards than the Pentium II-400 machines we've examined in the past. Still, when we compared Dell's PIII-500 to an older Dell PII-400 machine, we didn't see earth-shaking performance differences on our standard tests.
The PIII-500 showed a 4-percent improvement in the Director test, an 8-percent boost in the PowerPoint test, and a 44-percent gain in the Redline Racer game test (which counts frames per second). That last gain is less impressive than it sounds, however: It's hard for anyone to visually perceive more than 30 frames per second, and fast PII machines already run many games at that speed.
New PIII-optimized apps
We've barely dipped our toes in the pool when it comes to testing apps that capitalize on the new Streaming SIMD Extensions. But it was an invigorating dip. Running preliminary versions of three enhanced applications, we saw some dramatic improvements when we stressed the systems with complex tasks and big files.
We compared the standard version of one popular game with the not-yet-announced PIII-enhanced version on 500- and 450-MHz PIII systems. The enhanced version pumped out about 37 to 43 frames per second; the standard version, 17 to 18 fps. Moreover, the PIII processor gives users an interesting gaming advantage: It should handle more visual detail and higher resolutions at 30 frames per second, says Games.net reviews editor Nash Werner. Improved resolution and color depth will allow PIII machines to run future games at near photographic quality, he says. (All Pentium III systems will ship with Microsoft's DirectX 6.1 preinstalled; 3D games should also benefit from SIMD instructions if they're written to this standard.)
To assess PIII image editing, we tried out an enhanced plug-in for Adobe Photoshop 5.0 that's designed to speed up a number of specific tasks. We tested three -- including a wave distortion filter and a gradient fill -- by applying them to a 20MB image and measuring the total time required to complete the operations. With PIII-500 and PIII-450 machines, we consistently achieved performance gains of about 20 percent using the SIMD-enabled plug-in. If you spend your days tweaking Photoshop images, you'll appreciate the increased efficiency.
Intel is also touting the Pentium III's ability to accelerate streaming media downloaded from the Internet. Only one enhanced browser plug-in was ready for us to test, so we can't give a broad-based verdict on whether it lives up to that large promise. But our test of Macromedia's new Flash plug-in for streaming animation took an average of 11 percent less time on Pentium III-450 systems than on otherwise identical Pentium II-450s. That's a notable but not breathtaking improvement.
Better voice recognition?
We also peeked at perhaps the most promising benefit of the SIMD extensions: improved voice recognition programs with shorter training times and higher accuracy rates. For this purpose, we auditioned a very early PIII-enhanced version of Dragon's Point and Speak voice-recognition application.
We couldn't formally test it because the software was in such a preliminary state. And we couldn't tell how much of the improvement was due to the PIII extensions. Even so, long-time Dragon user Susan Fry proclaimed it "a vast improvement" over Dragon's existing NaturallySpeaking program as it runs on her Pentium II-300 system.
Fry, a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer, relies on voice recognition to input text since she's developed repetitive strain injuries in her wrists. She spent six months painstakingly fine-tuning her Dragon software to recognize her speech patterns and vocabulary, ultimately attaining an accuracy rate of about 90 to 95 percent. Fry was stunned by the new version's performance on a Pentium III-500 machine. "It recognized easily ninety-five percent after two minutes of training -- I was floored," she says.
Fry also noted that the software typed words on screen quickly, almost as fast as she spoke them. Still, until Dragon's shipping version is available for testing, it's hard to tell how much of the improvement is due to the Pentium III extensions, and how much stems from better software coding.
More apps coming
Intel says software vendors will turn out dozens of applications optimized for the Pentium III, a good number of them by early summer. Many of these will be games, Internet plug-ins, and graphics tools.
These enhanced applications will not change most people's daily PC routine. Like the MMX instructions Intel added to its Pentium line (and all subsequent processors), the Pentium III instruction set will probably blend into the background of your PC's capabilities, offering a modest boost here, an occasional dramatic speed-up there. Within a year or so, the PIII will simply supplant the PII, just as the PII replaced the original Pentium.
There's one bit of bad news on the operating systems front. The newest Windows versions are ready for the Pentium III. But unless you use Windows 98 or Windows NT 4.0, you'll forfeit the performance gains of the SIMD instructions. Both Windows 98 and the upcoming Windows 2000 OS support the new instructions. Microsoft will supply a Pentium III compatibility patch for Windows NT 4.0 -- but not for Windows 95.
What's it worth to you?
If you have the bucks to spend on a PIII-500, go ahead: Enjoy. It doesn't make sense for everyone to pay top dollar for a 500-MHz Pentium III, but these systems do provide real performance gains on tough applications, and they fly through games. Tantalizing performance breakthroughs in voice recognition could present a further enticement.
But beware of buyer's remorse. PIII systems due in the second quarter of this year will run at 550-MHz. Models due in the second half of the year will run faster than 550 MHz and some will pack 133-MHz system buses and faster graphics boards. The faster system bus, in particular, should be a boon to people who work with large files. By year's end, the PIII may be speeding along as fast as 700 MHz.
And by the way, if you're thinking of purchasing a PIII chip and plugging it into an existing PII motherboard, investigate thoroughly first: Many PII motherboards are not compatible with PIII chips.
The rest of us faced with buying a power desktop PC in the short term need to decide between the more reasonably priced Pentium III-450s and the even cheaper Pentium II-400s.
PII-400 machines run office applications fast enough for most people and should sell for as little as $1700 by March. But at that price, they won't offer as rich a configuration, and they won't give you access to enhanced graphic apps, games, Web plug-ins, or voice recognition programs.
If those apps don't matter to you, consider buying a sub-$1500 system based on Intel's Celeron-400 or Celeron-433 processor or AMD's K6-II-400 chip.
To hedge your bet, check out a less-generously configured PIII-450. At least one vendor hopes to offer a frugal model for about $1900 in March. That's a PIII price we can get excited about -- even without three exclamation points.
Testing for this story conducted by Ulrike Diehlmann, Nancy Miller, and Mike Salayko of the PC World Test Center.
How fast is the PIII? Don't ask
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