Conclusion: Common Sense Prevails
Over and above the clear test results, our price-performance analysis clearly shows that the added performance of CPUs in the upper bracket bears no sensible relation to the extra price. Nonetheless, the result should not be seen as vilifying high-speed processors.
Frequently, there are tasks that require a great deal of time, such as encoding vacation videos to MPEG-2 or 4 or packing large quantities of data. In these cases, one tends to shell out more money for a faster processor. Also, there are many processors that are affordable to a wider public, as long as you don't need 3 GHz.
In the gaming sector, many processor makers are dogged by the fact that only a few programs need really fast CPUs. One reason for this development is the displacement of graphics-intensive operations to the graphics card; another is the ongoing tense competition between AMD and Intel that long ago outstripped the requirements of modern standard software in terms of performance. It's true that in the professional area things look quite different. Where a certain level of demand exists, more performance is the only answer.
Overclocking is still an interesting option for many home users to pep up their systems a bit. As our test results with the overclocked entry models the AthlonXP 2600+ and the 2.6 GHz Pentium 4 show, clear gains are possible in many benchmarks. The only drawback is the persistent uncertainty as to whether the processor of choice can actually handle the intended speed boost reliably. In the final analysis, a little luck is needed, too.
Novices should certainly consider the AthlonXP 2600+ or 2800+, since a serviceable platform with 512 MB of memory is inexpensive and will do nicely for the next 18-24 months.
The Pentium 4 has slightly better performance reserves and more than 3.2 GHz can probably be squeezed from Socket 478, meaning that the extra investment in the processor will pay off over the long term.
The AMD Athlon64 FX and Intel's Pentium 4 Extreme Edition are still status symbols for the computing jet set. After all, you can pick up a complete and high-performance system for between $750 and $1,000, which as our benchmarks show, also offer a superior price/performance ratio.