Final Recount: Pentium 4 vs. Athlon


Since the release of Pentium 4 a couple of weeks ago, we have seen a large number of different opinions about Intel's new flagship processor. Due to its completely new design it shows quite peculiar behavior in what I would call 'bread-and-butter applications'. The majority of standard benchmarks attest Pentium 4 inferior to average performance, which generated a lot of disappointment. However, we were also trying to point out that the scores with specially Pentium4-optimized software are able to show this processor in a much better light.


This unusual situation generated a lot of confusion, because it makes it very hard to come to a valid conclusion about Pentium 4. Should this CPU be simply dismissed as an overpriced and inadequate solution, or shall we already now call it the big winner of tomorrow's software environment? Are reviewers that despise Pentium 4 simply trapped in the past or are the supporters of Pentium 4 just a bunch of wishful thinkers?

Another Update

This promised and somewhat delayed Pentium 4 evaluation update will not be able to answer all of the questions raised about Pentium 4, but it will try bringing new facts to the table, so that we all get a little bit of a better idea what we can expect from Intel's latest and greatest processor product. It will again compare Pentium 4 with AMD's latest Athlon processor, which will soon be available at speeds of 1200 MHz and beyond, running at 133 MHz (266 MHz DDR) processor bus and aided by the highly anticipated DDR-SDRAM memory. We are basing this update purely on benchmarks, which is why I recommend reading our previous publications about Pentium 4 to learn about its new architecture and the benchmark results that we've been seeing so far. Please make sure you have read all of the listed articles below to be able and see the big picture:

Windows 2000

This new comparison will focus on benchmarks scored under Microsoft's successor operating system to Windows NT, which is commonly known under the name Windows 2000. For people who work professionally with their PCs, Windows 2000 is offering the reliable platform that neither Windows 98 nor the new Windows ME are able to provide. I personally don't run Windows 98/ME on any of my systems anymore, simply because I am tired of regular system crashes and other failures. Windows 2000 has quickly become very successful, because it finally combined the reliability of Windows NT with the ease of use and gaming support known from Windows 98. Additionally, Microsoft has finally added a few very useful features that are common in UNIX for a very long time.

The only reason that keeps end users from running Windows 2000 on their systems is mainly based on its higher price compared to Windows 98/ME and the fact that people don't realize how much more reliable their system will become once Windows 2000 is installed. There's also the fear that Windows 2000 could be more difficult to administer than the two 'toy OSes', which is not really based on actual facts.

Intel's Strength In The Workstation Market

PCs that are used for professional applications are commonly referred to as 'workstations'. While there is a whole lot of different software that runs on all the different workstations, a large amount of those systems is used for professional 3D-design. We were very surprised to learn that 99.9% of those professional graphic as well as other workstations are actually equipped with Intel processors. The OEMs that supply those systems are simply not interested in AMD's Athlon, although its performance makes it a great product for exactly this market. AMD has great difficulty to penetrate this segment where the system cost is rather negligible to the customers. For workstation buyers, Athlon's price advantage over Intel-products is of no importance, while Intel's former good name for stability and reliability and AMD's past failures seems to still sit very deep inside the decision makers minds.

You can imagine that this fact will ensure that the future PC-workstation processor will be Pentium 4 rather than Athlon, even though it doesn't seem to make any sense. AMD has still a lot work to do if it wants to get into this market segment.

Benchmark Setup

Let's now get into the Windows 2000 benchmark results, which are always preceded by the benchmark setup.

We still used the same Pentium 4 platform as in the earlier tests, the P4T motherboard from Asus. Due to the high clock potential of Pentium 4 we decided to include numbers generated by Pentium 4 at the overclocked speeds of 1.6 and 1.73 GHz once more. Pentium III ran on the Asus CUSL2 i815 motherboard, as i815 is currently the fastest chipset available for this processor.

Athlon was mainly tested in its new version at 133/266 MHz system bus and with DDR-memory, running in an AMD760 platform from Gigabyte. Gigabyte's GA-7DX motherboard has lately been a hot topic in the news, because it is the motherboard that is supposed to provide the platform of Micron's latest Athlon/DDR platform. Micron has put systems with AMD760 and 133 MHz FSB on shipment hold, due to a problem between AMD's 760 chipset and Athlon processors with 133 MHz bus. While AMD is working on a fix for this problem, it is not supplying any 133 MHz chipsets to motherboard makers or motherboard makers are unable to get AMD760-boards at 133 MHz FSB through their quality testing. This is why it is close to impossible to get your hands on any AMD760 motherboard right now. AMD's problem with 760 is a bit nebulous, but it reminds you of Intel's situation with i820 a year ago.

Surprisingly enough we did not encounter any problems with Gigabyte's GA-7DX motherboard. It proved to be a better as well as more reliable performer than AMD's own 760-reference board. Different to AMD's reference platform the GA-7DX from Gigabyte is using the 686B southbridge from VIA. This makes it very easy to find an IDE-driver for Windows 2000 that enables ATA-100.

You might be surprised to find Athlon at clock speeds of 1400 and 1466 MHz in the comparisons. I included them to give Athlon the chance to show its performance in the same clock speed area that Pentium 4 is using. You may wonder how I got Athlon running at those high clock speeds, but you will have to wait a few days for the answer, as I will dedicate a special article to this very special achievement and the hardware involved.

Neither AMD's 760-reference board, nor Gigabyte's GA-7DX provide any means to alter the multiplier of Athlon processors. Therefore I had to do some modifications to the GA-7DX to be able and overclock Athlon to those 1400 (133 MHz x 10.5) and 1466 MHz (133 MHz x 11). In this process I learned how easy those modifications actually are and I will soon supply you with an article that explains how to easily change each SocketA-motherboard to an overclocker's board.