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Intel Pentium 4 Vs. Atom: A Battle Of The Generations

Intel Pentium 4 Vs. Atom: A Battle Of The Generations
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Most people know that Intel’s Atom is a slow, low-cost processor. But does it even offer enough performance to take it beyond desktop processors nearly a decade old? Today we're comparing a modern Atom CPU to two Northwood-class Pentium 4-based PCs.

We were sorting out some old hardware in one of our test labs and wondered what to do with our old Socket 478 Pentium 4 gear. Disposing of it doesn’t feel quite right, and we know that many Pentium 4 systems remain in service. Clock speeds between 2 GHz and 3.4 GHz still provide sufficient performance for a home server or backup PC, so why not put up two different Pentium 4 systems against single-core and dual-core Atom solutions to see how today’s low-cost computing solutions hold up?

Convenience Computing

We done several articles dealing with Atom and comparing its performance and efficiency with other solutions. First and foremost, it’s important to note that Atom is not in the same market segment as desktop-oriented Core 2, Core ix, Phenom, or Athlon processors. Atoms enable the lowest-cost netbooks and nettop computers. They aren’t meant to be particularly efficient, and they won’t satisfy a power user. Any entry-level Core i3 desktop will provide many times better power efficiency, in fact.

Atom makes sense where local computing performance doesn’t matter very much: browsing the Internet, communicating via email or social networks, and processing documents and spreadsheets. For these, Atom is more than enough.

Buy Atom or Recycle P4?

Does it make more sense to purchase a cheap Atom-based computer or to recycle and/or continue to use an existing Pentium 4 machine? Both run at decent clock speeds and come with 512 KB of L2 cache. Both can be considered above average if you have modest performance expectations. And both have a comparable transistor count: 55 million for the Pentium 4 (based on the Northwood design) and 47 millions for the Atom 230.

More importantly, you might be able to get an older P4 system for very little money from a friend or business upgrading to newer hardware. We compare the Atom 230 and D510 to a Pentium 4 (Northwood) 2.2 and 3.2 GHz.

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Top Comments
  • 22 Hide
    Tamz_msc , July 16, 2010 6:26 AM
    Interesting comparison.And some of my friends still use Pentium 4s. I think that you could have also included Athlons from that time in this test.
  • 22 Hide
    vizzie , July 16, 2010 6:43 AM
    So essentially both suck but, an ald P4 will be noisier and consume more power but an Atom will set you back a few hundred bucks.

    I'd say if you have an old P4 lying about, keep that and put it somewhere you won't hear it. Environment-wise you'll save the energy and materials needed to build an Atom pc an money-wise the few hundred you save are more than enough to cover the costs of the extra power.
  • 22 Hide
    antlee , July 16, 2010 7:04 AM
    I'd like to say the motherboard choice for P4 is bad. A board with onboard graphic should be used for apples to apples comparision. Please re-test the P4 with a 945/915/865/845 motherboard.
Other Comments
  • 14 Hide
    frye , July 16, 2010 6:21 AM
    I, uh... wow.
  • 22 Hide
    Tamz_msc , July 16, 2010 6:26 AM
    Interesting comparison.And some of my friends still use Pentium 4s. I think that you could have also included Athlons from that time in this test.
  • -1 Hide
    ksa-_-jed , July 16, 2010 6:43 AM
    If you are looking for power efficiency and long battery life then atom well be a good chose
  • 22 Hide
    vizzie , July 16, 2010 6:43 AM
    So essentially both suck but, an ald P4 will be noisier and consume more power but an Atom will set you back a few hundred bucks.

    I'd say if you have an old P4 lying about, keep that and put it somewhere you won't hear it. Environment-wise you'll save the energy and materials needed to build an Atom pc an money-wise the few hundred you save are more than enough to cover the costs of the extra power.
  • 20 Hide
    matt87_50 , July 16, 2010 6:54 AM
    P4 was a travesty on good processor design towards the end. "just clock it higher bill, turn the fan up"

    I'm so glad we could all get Athlon 64s instead.

    It makes a little sick inside that I'm still using a pentium D (two P4s ducktaped together to make a dual core) in my 24/7 file server, and not one of these atoms.

  • 22 Hide
    antlee , July 16, 2010 7:04 AM
    I'd like to say the motherboard choice for P4 is bad. A board with onboard graphic should be used for apples to apples comparision. Please re-test the P4 with a 945/915/865/845 motherboard.
  • 5 Hide
    king smp , July 16, 2010 7:34 AM
    Lets match a Dual Xeon (Northwood core) against some of today's lower end machines.
    The P4 3.0 Ht and higher can still handle everything except high end gaming. And actually on Activisions site minimum system requirements are a P4 3.0 and DirectX 9.0c to play call of duty 2 modern warfare and left 4 dead 2.
    So I would call P4's "pathetic" yet.
    Unless you are an elitist snob!
  • 2 Hide
    eddieroolz , July 16, 2010 7:57 AM
    This was very interesting. It does bring back memories - I ran a Northwood 2.8GHz. Installed Windows 7 on it for fun a while back, but it was absolutely unbearable for me.
  • 7 Hide
    SIDDHARTHmaitai , July 16, 2010 8:15 AM
    I dont know wahts all the buzz about but I have a 500 mhz celeron n it seems to work well for me. of course I have another computer so I dont use the celeron much. But if need be I only need to install those softwares that were designed those days of celeron , for instance I just have to choose office xp for my celeron and it works well. infact do we need the more expensive n latest ms office when our old ones can do the same thing effeciently enough?
  • 14 Hide
    mitch074 , July 16, 2010 8:16 AM
    Well, we already knew that the P4 design SUCKED at the time, it didn't get better with age - I mean, the DIY crowd at the compsci on my former campus never ever looked the P4 way: they all got Athlons. An Athlon XP 2800+ would kick a Northwood's behind in pretty much all tasks except video encoding while drawing only half its power. Let's not go the server way though, a 2003 Opteron overcame a Xeon so badly all of Intel's spin and illegal practices couldn't prevent AMD from taking a sizable share of the server (and enthusiasts) market.

    Still, there's one glaring mistake, P4s did have SpeedStep: SpeedStep first appeared on Pentium III Mobiles chips, and a Northwood could actually clock down to 800 MHz when idle. The problem is, Northwood's SpeedStep implementation doesn't match more recent ones, and it may not be recognized by all OSes (I do know that Linux has a different clock manager module for P4s and for other Intel CPUs).
  • -4 Hide
    Alvin Smith , July 16, 2010 8:36 AM
    Well,

    I am reading this and typing on a maxed out Northwood 3.2C and I just finished watching two hours of "Fox on Demand" and "PBS" on my 52" LG LCD (Thru a 4G WiMax Modem) without a hicough.

    I finally broke down and cheaped out ... just took delivery of an Athlon-II x4 at ~2.8GHz for $100, because my HDV>>MPEG4 output renders were taking over 7 hours for "near lossless" renders.

    I have a CoolerMaster with a speed knob that gets cranked, for renders and my Raptor (SATA-I) is the loudest part (when CPU fan is attenuated).

    Wish I had the time and tools to clock my old system (Northwood) against this A2x4(OC) with Zahlman 120mm push-pull stack cooler and 4GB RipJaws 1600c7.

    Anyway ... All my new fans are rated under 20dB noise and over 50CFM and I am dropping two Zotac 240GT passive (fanless) GPUs in an 890/UD3 mobo with an Intel G2 SSD (boot/apps) and two Spinpoint F3s, in removable mobile-racks (slide out hot-swaps), so I can go SILENT for live audio DAW recording and HTPC (when not streaming from the F3s.

    ... Like I said ... Would be fun to bench it against the Northwood but I don't have the time ... I am guessing/hoping, renders will run in one-third the time ... ANY GUESTIMATES ?

    = Alvin Smith =
  • 4 Hide
    Alvin Smith , July 16, 2010 8:46 AM

    How is it that you are running a 64 bit OS on the Northwood, a 32Bit proc ?

    The MS compatibility page said I had to run Win7-32 ... what am I missing ?

    Curently running XPP/SP2

    = Al =
  • 11 Hide
    HalfHuman , July 16, 2010 9:07 AM
    oh... the netblast architecture tested once again. oh joy!
    i hated the p4 thing when everybody was a p4 zombie.
    at that time i was working as a pc salesman at a local respectable company. p4 was expensive, power hungry and inefficient. it was at least 100$ more expensive than a comparable amd system. as we were mainly into intel mobos the intel platforms were less prone to rma. the boss was eager to sell intel because of the.... ummm.... intel incentives ;)  found out about this later. i sold the first athlon 64 system in the company. they did not burn me on a stake but they were close. did not have a easy time putting together a amd system as nobody knew much about athlon 64 but i hated intel sooo much.

    p4 sucked, sucks and will still suck in the milenias to come.

    oh... forgot to tell we have a magnificent test server at work running a xeon based on p4 architecture... and it is slow as snails.

    good thing intel pulled their shit together and got the p3... umm core architecture out and that was a lot different.
  • 3 Hide
    pojih , July 16, 2010 9:48 AM
    Page 1, after convenience computing it says We Done.. should be We've done. But, nice article!
  • 2 Hide
    amdfangirl , July 16, 2010 10:25 AM
    Great article.

    Now to rant about low power PCs :p .
  • 0 Hide
    DavC , July 16, 2010 10:35 AM
    pojihPage 1, after convenience computing it says We Done.. should be We've done. But, nice article!

    noticed that as well
  • 2 Hide
    rohitbaran , July 16, 2010 10:45 AM
    Lame mp3 encoder: truly lame.
  • 0 Hide
    zodiacfml , July 16, 2010 11:16 AM
    nice article, cements my decision with going the new dual core atom than buying a new LGA mobo for an old P4 mobo which just died.

    for the same performance, i spent a little more for power efficiency, smaller size, less heat, and fanless and noiseless system. one thing i forgot though is that the new Atom Pinetrail dual core does not have the PATA interface anymore, i had to salvage a SATA drive here in my current system.
  • 2 Hide
    pepperman , July 16, 2010 11:25 AM
    mitch074Well, we already knew that the P4 design SUCKED at the time, it didn't get better with age - I mean, the DIY crowd at the compsci on my former campus never ever looked the P4 way: they all got Athlons. An Athlon XP 2800+ would kick a Northwood's behind in pretty much all tasks except video encoding while drawing only half its power. Let's not go the server way though, a 2003 Opteron overcame a Xeon so badly all of Intel's spin and illegal practices couldn't prevent AMD from taking a sizable share of the server (and enthusiasts) market.Still, there's one glaring mistake, P4s did have SpeedStep: SpeedStep first appeared on Pentium III Mobiles chips, and a Northwood could actually clock down to 800 MHz when idle. The problem is, Northwood's SpeedStep implementation doesn't match more recent ones, and it may not be recognized by all OSes (I do know that Linux has a different clock manager module for P4s and for other Intel CPUs).


    I agree with you regarding the performance differences, but the only Northwood Pentium 4s with speedstep were the Pentium 4 m (mobile). None of the desktop Pentium 4s had speedstep enabled until after the migration to socket 775 (around 2005).
  • -4 Hide
    voicu83 , July 16, 2010 11:54 AM
    what about heat? i know that you could fry eggs on those monsters

    typo on components table "DDR dual : DDR2 ..."
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