Fast and pricey PIII 550 reconsidered
May 18, 1999
by Laurianne McLaughlin
(IDG) -- You've probably seen the big blue door. That's Intel's marketing gimmick, designed to convince buyers that its new Pentium III chip powers the most irresistible PCs ever built. The door is about to open again. Intel has just pushed the speed of the Pentium III processor to 550 MHz, up from the initial 450- and 500-MHz clock speeds. But don't venture in just yet. The extra speed won't buy you much more performance and it'll cost you hundreds of dollars extra.
Moreover, Intel is exaggerating when it claims that the enhanced instructions that distinguish the PIII from earlier chips will propel you to a dramatically improved world of Web browsing. To date, about 16 Web browser plug-ins and 30 sites have been enhanced for the PIII. And some of those look just fine on a fast PII system.
We tested three preproduction PIII-550 systems: Compaq's $2799 Prosignia 330, geared toward small businesses; Dell's $2600 Dimension XPS T550, designed for home use; and Hewlett-Packard's $2564 Vectra Vli8 MT, targeted at corporate customers. They're all solid PCs. But they run our application tests a lot like their next-door neighbors, the Pentium III-500 systems. And that's no surprise. PIII-450 and PIII-500 systems already run blazingly fast, and few applications today cry out for more speed. If you covet the fastest PC, note that PIII-550s will cost $200 to $300 more than a similarly equipped PIII-500 and as much as $400 more than a comparable PIII-450 from the same vendor.
Of course, there's more to a PC than its processor. All three PIII-550 machines we evaluated deliver some compelling new features. For example, the Compaq has a 250MB Zip drive, and both the Compaq and Dell systems use an impressive 32MB graphics board based on the high-performance NVidia RIVA TNT2 chip.
Do you need a PC that runs faster than 500 MHz? Some people do. Database designers and multimedia content creators, for example, push their PCs to the limit. But it's no wonder that those of us who use ordinary productivity applications are getting a little blase about speed. Even relatively inexpensive desktops run standard apps quite well.
"Intel has a problem: trying to convince people to buy something other than Celeron," says Linley Gwennap, editorial director of The Microprocessor Report.
Without question, the three PIII-550 machines we tested, each with 128MB of RAM, ripped through our business application tests. The Compaq Prosignia earned a PC WorldBench 98 score of 246, the best performance for a Windows 98 machine to date. The HP Vectra checked in at 244, and the Dell Dimension at 241--a virtual tie. But these machines run business applications only about 5 to 7 percent faster (10 percent is noticeable) than the average PIII-500 with 128MB of RAM.
Power is important, but if you're thinking about buying a PIII system, you should also ask yourself some questions about PIII-enhanced software: How much of it has arrived, and what's in it for me?
The Pentium III's 70 Streaming SIMD extensions speed up apps or browser plug-ins designed specifically to take advantage of them (as with the 57 MMX instructions). Applications such as 3D games that have been optimized for Microsoft's DirectX 6.1 API can also take advantage of the PIII instructions. Intel estimates about 100 PIII-enhanced apps will ship by June 1.
The improved plug-ins do speed up some tasks such as streaming animation. But on the whole, PIII-enhanced content won't radically improve your everyday browsing. For example, one site for PIII PC users that Intel touts, Excite Extreme (see link at right), uses a PIII-enhanced plug-in to help you search the Web. Instead of clicking through a list of search categories, you can click on and rotate a series of 3D objects that represent topics. The PIII instructions improve the frame rate and smoothness of the 3D graphics.
For business users, PIII-enhanced voice recognition and image editing apps show the most promise. For our test schedule, Dragon's NaturallySpeaking was the only enhanced voice recognition app that had shipped. Lotus's upcoming SmartSuite Millennium edition, due out in June, will also use PIII instructions to speed up voice recognition processing. Philips plans to ship a PIII-enhanced version of FreeSpeech this summer, and IBM and Lernout & Hauspie expect to ship similar voice products in the fall.
Microsoft Office 2000, due to ship in June, has two PIII-enhancements, Microsoft says. PIII instructions should speed up encoding of presentations for Web broadcasts and speed up performance with PhotoDraw, the business graphics application included in Office 2000 Premium Edition. As for other business fare, a handful of e-commerce and asset management tools are shipping and of course, more PIII-enhanced apps will arrive throughout the year.
Beyond the PIII processor, you'll find the PIII-550 machines' configurations generous. The corporate PIII-550 system we tested, HP's Vectra Vli8 MT, costs the least ($2564) and comes with a 17-inch monitor. Our model included a 16X-32X CD-ROM drive, 13.5GB hard drive, and a 3Com 10/100 network interface card. The Vectra's case design is also top-notch: Pull a small lever, and the left side of the case comes off. Another lever removes the whole motherboard, and drives slide out without tools. The software bundle includes HP's TopTools manageability software, which handles chores from remote configuration to asset tracking.
As for graphics performance, the Vectra uses a Matrox G200 graphics chip with 8MB of memory integrated on the motherboard. This subsystem works fine for business graphics, though you can't upgrade it later. HP's PIII-550 machine held its own during tasks like playing a presentation in PowerPoint 97 or a clip using Macromedia Director. We left the HP out of the 3D game tests because we didn't want anyone to dismiss this corporate PC on the basis of game frame rates.
For home PC enthusiasts, Dell's Dimension XPS T550 has all the toys you'd expect in a $2600 PC, along with a 19-inch monitor. Our model packed a 20GB hard drive, a 6X DVD-ROM drive, and a standard 100MB Zip drive. But if you're a 3D-game fan, this machine's Diamond Viper V7770 graphics card will probably be the major draw: It delivered smooth motion and solid performance in our tests using Redline Racer and Incoming.
Compaq's $2799 Prosignia 330, the most expensive of the three machines we evaluated, had the biggest hard drive-22GB-and a 250MB Zip drive, one of the first we've seen bundled in a system. Our model also came with a 52X CD-ROM drive, a 19-inch monitor, and the same outstanding Diamond graphics card as the Dell machine. In our graphics tests we did see a few differences among the PIII-550 systems. For example, the Compaq machine took 15 seconds longer than the Dell PC to complete the PowerPoint test. But don't read too much into that. The graphics cards used in the machines were in beta form, as were the graphics card drivers. We expect more uniform graphics quality in the shipping versions.
One last consideration: If you like to buy the fastest PC in hopes of postponing obsolescence, watch out. The next round of PIII machines, expected to debut in early fall, will add more than just clock speed.
The upcoming PIIIs will integrate a new system chip set code-named Camino, which supports a 133-MHz system bus (up from today's 100-MHz bus on PIII systems and 66-MHz bus on Celeron systems). The chip set also enables AGP 4X graphics and support for direct RDRAM, a fast new type of memory that enjoys an improved interface to the CPU.
Meanwhile, Intel's archrival, Advanced Micro Devices, has big plans of its own. The first systems based on AMD's K7 processor are expected later this summer. The K7, which will launch in 500-, 550- and 600-MHz versions, supports a 200-MHz system bus and looks to be a robust PIII competitor.
Make no mistake, the PIII-550 systems we tested are fast, solid, well-designed machines. So why aren't we more enthusiastic? Simply put, the PIII-500 and PIII-450 models offer a sweeter combination of price and performance for many buyers. For example, you could buy the Dell Dimension XPS with a PIII-500 processor for $2340. Workhorse PIII-450 desktops now go for less than $1800. And if the PIII-enhanced apps and browser plug-ins don't intrigue you, by all means consider buying a Celeron-466 system for $1499. Systems based on that processor race through applications such as Word or e-mail almost exactly like a PIII-450 system. Finally, if you've been saving for a dream game machine, think hard about waiting for systems with the Camino chip set and the AGP 4X graphics cards to debut in the fall. Opening the big blue door may be much more exciting then.
Pentium III squabble continues
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