Racing Chips

4 minute read
Josh Quittner

Some day I hope to get my hands on Apple’s new G4, a desktop computer so fast that the company, at least, says it is really a supercomputer that can’t be exported to hostile countries. I’m not sure what I’ll do with so much power–probably work toward world peace or play poker, as usual. Still, it’ll be a comfort. In the meantime, I’ve been sampling the latest, fastest chip off the block: a 650-MHz Athlon, from Advanced Micro Devices. The new chip, also known as the K7, is slated to ship later this month on selected Compaq Presario and IBM Aptiva 865 machines. For the first time in ages, beleaguered AMD has a speed edge over rival Intel, whose Pentium III chips chug away at (yawn!) 600 MHz.

Compaq lent me a preproduction Presario that comes with the Athlon chip and all the dressings (128 megs of RAM, DVD drive and so on). It’s certainly a match for the Dell Dimension XPS T500, which I wrote about in March on the heels of Intel’s launch of the Pentium III. In fact, it’s faster–at least, according to the specs and benchmark tests conducted by various know-it-all trade magazines. But what does that mean to me? To find out, I tried a few real-world tests. It took me 48 sec. to install Hoyle Casino (Sierra) on my otherwise comparably configured Dell, vs. 30 sec. on the Compaq. (And two minutes on each to lose $5,000 in Texas Hold ‘Em.) Installing the morbidly obese Microsoft Office 2000 took 7 min. 40 sec. on the Dell but 6 min. 30 sec. on the Compaq. Starting up Word on both PCs was so fast (mere tenths of seconds) that I couldn’t accurately record it on my stopwatch. Getting rid of that hideous animated paper-clip help guy, however, took way too long, though you can blame this on Microsoft, not chip speed.

The only problem I encountered was when I installed Wham-O’s Frisbee Golf: an error message informed me that my machine didn’t have the required horsepower–a Pentium running at 90 MHz or better. (Duh. That’s because it’s not a Pentium.) Luckily, the error message wasn’t fatal, and I was able to get the game running on the Compaq anyway.

I saw no difference in playing DVD movies or running any of the rich programs in the vast, dark Quittner Collection, although the Athlon is supposed to handle multimedia much better, thanks to its 200-MHz bus, vs. the Pentium’s 100-MHz bus. (Think of the bus as the highway between the microprocessor and the rest of the computer.) A spokesman for Intel pooh-poohed the importance of bus speed, saying the real bottleneck is elsewhere in the computer. As for all the other benchmarks that show AMD’s chip being faster, Intel had no comment, though it has cut Pentium prices as much as 41%.

So AMD’s Athlon or Intel’s Pentium III: that is the question. All things being equal–components, software and peripherals in the package deal–if you feel you must have the latest, fastest, I’d shop this one strictly by price. Don’t worry about brand names. If you can get a better deal on an Athlon, do it. One thing to keep in mind, though, is this: 99% of you who read this column won’t see much difference. Chips have become so fast, they outpace most software’s requirements. Then again, if speed really matters to you, maybe you need an Apple G4.

For more on microprocessors, see our website at timedigital.com Questions for Quittner? E-mail him at jquit@well.com

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