- AMDPrice - £215
A cruel world
Many moons ago we took a look at AMD's 1GHz Athlon, Socket A revision. Using the "Thunderbird" core, it pummelled Pentiums in just about every test we could throw at it. Now of course, Intel have answered AMD with the release of the Pentium 4, which we feel is a very promising architectural change. That said, it hasn't taken off, and benchmarks show it suffering at the hands of AMD. The reason that current programs don't show any real improvement is that they are coded to avoid using (previously slow) main system memory, and the Pentium 4's design relies upon the superior memory bandwidth and the speed of its main memory. It's a slightly peculiar hypothesis, but it would explain why programs don't take advantage of the memory bandwidth that the P4 has been built to use. Which, all things considered puts AMD in a very strong position, at least for the time being. With a new revision of the Athlon core codenamed "Palomino" and a concurrent revision of the Duron core codenamed "Morgan" close to release, the company has a lot to be cheerful about. The list of improvements seems to be mostly to do with temperature and power management - fundamentally it's still the Athlon "K7" core, edging its way higher and higher. Palomino should debut at 1533MHz. However as our readers will know, at speeds like that any machine is going to be severely graphics card limited, unable to keep the polygons pumping hard enough to strain the CPU any further. And lets face it, we're not CADs, we're not movie directors, we're gamers, and we want high framerates and pretty visuals. Having played with numerous Athlons and various graphics cards, our research indicates that very little if anything is gained above around 1.1GHz, even with the latest GeForce 3 and high performance system memory. Which is why, gentle reader, we're casting a critical eye over the most powerful strain of the K7 core yet produced for the home consumer; the 1.33GHz Athlon.
It could be argued that gamers are no longer buying expensive computers to improve their framerates. Generally speaking, they want to experience a higher level of visual quality. With this in mind, we feel that a PC's ability to handle 32-bit colour with all settings maxed out is more important than how many frames per second above 150 it can go with no textures and primary colours. If you take a look at the following tables, you can clearly see a trend - at 1.1GHz and above, there is little or no change in framerate. All tests were conducted in Quake III, with a GeForce 3 (using beta drivers), currently the most powerful graphics card on the market. As indicated above, all settings were maxed out, although full-screen anti-aliasing was disabled. Quake III (OpenGL)
With anti-aliasing enabled, performance flatlined above 1GHz - our PC was limited by the ability of the GeForce 3 to shovel data. So immediately the question has to be, how can we justify the purchase of a 1.33GHz Athlon?
Price and Variety
Is AMD's 1.33GHz Athlon as powerful as they said it would be? In a word, yes. The problem is that at the moment, there is nothing that can really keep up with it, and programmers aren't developing software that can take advantage of, for example, the DDR motherboards that have been filtering onto the market. Even with DDR memory prices now rock bottom, the market is in disarray over how to handle things. Whether or not you should buy a 1.33GHz Athlon is dictated by two factors, the first of which is price. On the one hand, you won't necessarily have anything in your PC able to harness the chip's abilities, but on the other, it costs a mere £215, and opting for a slower processor to save £50 would seem wasteful. The other factor is variety. In all likelihood, if you're reading this, you don't just use your PC for gaming. Perhaps you watch DVDs, surf the Internet, juggle email applications and word processing packages. It all mounts up, and counts against you. The faster your processor, the faster things will get done. And thanks to the 1.33GHz processor's higher memory bus speed, you can harness some of the power your games can't touch right away. The Pentium III has long operated at its staple 100 and 133MHz front side bus speeds, passing data back and forth once for every memory bus clock cycle. With the Athlon, AMD introduced the ability to transfer twice as much data per clock, and claimed 200 and 266MHz front side buses. It also bears noting that the Pentium 4's "quad-pumped" memory architecture pushes four times as much data per clock thna the Pentium III. The move to a 133MHz DDR (or 266MHz) front side bus (FSB) noticeably improves performance. Using a 1.2GHz 100 DDR FSB chip, compared to a 1.2GHz 133 DDR FSB chip, and Ziff Davis' "Content Creation Winstone 2001" benchmark package, we discovered that performance improved by some 10% Another interesting test was the boot speed of the PC. Using the above two processors, loading the PC from cold to the Windows 2000 desktop three times for each chip, we observed an improvement of approximately 7 seconds.
Ultimately, any gamer who owns a computer over 900MHz will not be terribly impressed by the upgrade to 1.33GHz. If you're in the market for a new machine and find yourself still kicking around anything below that, you will not only notice it, but it will change the way that you play games and use your computer, at least for the next year or so while the world catches up. The most difficult thing about reviewing a processor is trying to work out whether the next big thing (which is never more than a few months away) is going to be worth waiting for. It drives us reviewers mad! As the owner of a 1GHz machine myself, I'm inclined to wait and see how that gets on.