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AMD's and Intel's End-of-Year CPU Buyer's Guide

The Market Leader: Intel Pentium 4

Whether you like Intel's P4 or not, in many instances the market leader reigns supreme. The P4 models with 800 MHz system speed (200 MHz according to the quad data rate method), dual DDR400 and Hyper Threading, for instance, finish with flying colors in all benchmarks.

HyperThreading can create a faster system environment for folks who tend to juggle a host of applications at the same time. Under Windows, HT simulates a dual-processor system and, ideally, really does enable simultaneous processing of two threads. The result is tangibly improved system response at high loads.

Under Windows 2000, HyperThreading doesn't amount to much at all (best turn it off), while it's a boon to Windows XP. Applications may run somewhat slower in some cases. Power users, though, should find the dual-processor system more fun than a few more percentage points in maximum performance.

When buying a Pentium 4, you must have an 800 MHz system clock speed (only these models and the 3.06 GHz P4 have HyperThreading), as well as two DDR400 DIMMs each with 256 MB - larger pairs as required. As platforms, Intel's 865PE chipsets as well as the 875P or the new SiS655TX and VIA's PT880 are recommended. Using older chipset models or single-channel memory solutions would be a false economy .

Intel sells all its Pentium 4 processors as "boxed" versions with a heat sink included. This is adequate in all cases and the fan is relatively quiet. If the system is overclocked well above 3 GHz, we recommend a more efficient cooling system.

The pinnacle of the Pentium 4s is the Extreme Edition, costing an astronomical 1,000 greenbacks, but with 3.2 GHz and a whopping 2 MB cache. If you want maximum performance, this is the answer for you, as this extreme processor even outruns the Athlon64 FX in the applications we ran. However, this will likely change once software makers - and especially game developers - begin to write code that will harness the Athlon64's 64 bit power.

A "boxed" processor, i.e. one with a matching heat sink, is a good choice for users with a penchant for overclocking.

FastTop model (Extreme Edition) very expensive
Mature platformSocket 478 will be superseded around mid-2004
Many chipsets available
Large range of processors