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Intel Goes Extreme

For gamers, Intel is redefining the standard for speed with its new Pentium. 4 Processor Extreme Edition with Hyper Threading

How do you define blindingly fast? If you are Intel, it is with its new Pentium 4 Processor Extreme Edition with Hyper Threading, the only processor that seems to have a full sentence for a name. At $925 per processor after a volume discount this is over twice the discounted retail price of the 3.2GHz Pentium 4 that previously had the top desktop spot.

That certainly doesn’t sound like a deal, given that this processor operates at the same clock speed (3.2MHz). However, this chip has nearly four times the amount of Level-3 cache, making it comparable to an Intel Xeon processor–which can cost well over three times as much. This onboard cache can boost performance significantly for some processor- and graphics-intensive applications like games and Cad Cam.

Clearly, for the graphics-intensive stuff (OK, for games) you need a top-end video card like a NVIDIA GeForce 5900 ultra or ATI Radeon 9800 XT, and about a gigabyte of fast DDR memory (Kingston 500MHz Hyper X is currently testing best). And for overall system performance, you need two SATA drives set at RAID 0 (I’ve had the best luck with Maxtor 6Y080M0 drives).

If you don’t want to build your own (I’m a big fan of building your own at this end of the market) Dell, HP, Alienware, and Gateway, among others, recently announced systems properly configured. (I typically favor the Alienware or Dell XPS systems at this $3K + price point).

What you end up with is a system with performance that’s blindingly fast now, but that will still seem merely fast by the end of next year. If Apple thinks it has anything that approaches this speed they are drinking way too much of their own Kool-Aid.

Currently the real competition for this part comes from AMD and their Athlon 64 FX part which was running about 3 to 20 percent faster (depending on benchmark) than the old 3.2GHz Pentium 4 with hyperthreading part offering in a similar configuration. With this new part, Intel once again takes the performance lead.

While at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in October, I had a chance to see an Athlon FX 51 notebook computer prototype from Alienware, which most LAN-party gamers, and a few engineers I know, would die for. There is no indication of an Intel Extreme Edition notebook yet but, slap a 17-inch wide-angle screen on that puppy and give me a mule to carry it, and it would be on the short list of things I’d want as a power user.

I have both FX 51 and Intel EE systems in my shop, and both systems are impressive. There have been some initial issues with the first runs of the FX motherboards, and Intel clearly benefits from the use of existing chipsets–which have been around a little longer and are based on Intel designs. In fact, I once I pulled a 3.2GHz chip out of an existing system and put in the EE part, I was off and running, I had to do a full migration to get the FX into service. This hurt the FX a little in some benchmarks, but it’s still faster than almost everything else currently in the market. Keep in mind, though, "almost" can be a big word.

In looking at a wide variety of gaming benchmarks, in most instances a user would not be able to tell the difference between the Intel EE and the AMD FX–even if you moved from one system to the other. Only if you ran the games side-by-side would you notice that one system was faster than the other. Where the EE part wins is in multimedia authoring applications (many are turned for Intel), MPEG and MP3 encoding, video and audio streaming, and data compression. Byron Miller, a friend of mine who works for Forrester Research, does high-end sound editing on the side and, Byron, if there was ever a chip for you, this is it.

The FX may have a longer service life because it anticipates the market’s move from 32 to 64 bits, and because the next-generation Intel chip (code-named Prescott) is due early next year. But few who buy systems in this class worry much about long service life. There is little doubt that systems using either technology will still seem fast at year-end 2004.

Both EE and the FX are low-volume, exclusive parts and will likely give you that "awe" factor so desired in a high-end system that you buy or build yourself. An Intel EE system will likely cost you at least $250 more than a similarly configured FX 51 Athlon 64 system but it will also, at least initially, be more exclusive. Exclusivity has its price.

However you get there, if you want blinding fast in a PC, Intel has just set the pace.

Rob Enderle is president of the Enderle Group, a technology research firm based in San Jose, Calif.

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