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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | Computer Basics

When Choosing a Processor, Watch Your Speed

June 08, 1998|Kim Komando

The past year has been like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride in the computer chip business. It really wasn't long ago that a 200-megahertz Pentium processor was the screamer. Not one to sit still, Intel released its Pentium with MMX and things got a little faster. Next came the Pentium II. Then processor speeds started creeping up to 266, 300, 333 and 350 MHz. Now chip speeds are zooming along at 400 MHz.

If you're in the market for a new personal computer, there are plenty of processors and speeds to choose from. Intel owns the lion's share of the chip marketplace (one reason for current government investigations). However, don't be fearful of computers bearing AMD or Cyrix chips. The focus here on Intel chips is strictly for convenience. A competent salesperson will be able to tell you which Intel chip matches the performance of a competitor's chip.

That said, first off, I strongly suggest you steer clear of Intel's new 266-MHz Celeron chip, which is aimed at low-end consumer personal computers. It doesn't have the processing power of an older 233-MHz Pentium MMX chip but, because it's new, the Celeron is actually more expensive.

Don't think for a moment that Intel hasn't noticed this. The company is planning to release a 300-MHz Celeron chip in the third quarter and a 333-MHz Celeron chip thereafter. Maybe then the Celeron will be something to consider.

Today, the chip to go with is a Pentium II--especially if you're interested in the latest 3-D games or other graphically intense applications. Sure, you can save a few bucks buying a plain Pentium with MMX, but the Pentium IIs offer one big advantage: the accelerated graphics port, or AGP.

The AGP slot on Pentium II-based systems was designed by Intel to accommodate special AGP video cards, which are now available from most leading video card manufacturers. AGP is designed to display 3-D images as quickly and smoothly as the most expensive graphics workstation. AGP achieves its dramatic results by using your system's main RAM to refresh the monitor image and support the texture-mapping and other techno-tricks required for displaying 3-D images.

You might think that relying on your main RAM to perform graphical functions would slow your system down. Not so. AGP's use of RAM is dynamic, which means when it's not using RAM for graphics acceleration, all RAM is free for use by your applications and operating system. Simply put, AGP is the fastest video option available on personal computers today.

OK, so I've convinced you to buy a Pentium II. Do you save a couple of dollars (actually, a couple of hundred dollars) with a slower system like, say, a 233-MHz Pentium II? Or do you spring for that monster 400-MHz system?

A few keystrokes on the calculator might lead you to believe that a 400-MHz processor will give you nearly a 75% increase in performance over a 233-MHz system. Not true. The performance boost is even more dramatic because of the bus speed.

On a personal computer, the term "bus" is used to describe the path that data takes into and out of the central processing unit. The faster the system bus, the better your computer's performance.

In the past, personal computers were limited to a 66-MHz bus. Keep in mind that even though they're both measured in megahertz, the bus speed and processor speed are not directly related. In fact, on slower processors, including earlier Pentium II processors, a 66-MHz system bus did a pretty good job of keeping up. But as processor speeds crept over the 300-MHz mark, that slow system bus began to create real processing bottlenecks.

The relatively new 100-MHz system bus alleviates these problems. A jump from 66 MHz to 100 MHz may not seem like a big deal, but Intel claims you may be able to realize as much as quadruple the performance just by moving to the faster bus. That's why virtually all 300-plus-MHz systems now come with a 100-MHz bus. What this means is that a new 400-MHz system with a high-speed bus is many times faster than, say, a 233-MHz with a slower system bus.

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Thankfully, 400-MHz Pentium II prices have already started to drop. For example, on a recent trip to the Micron Web site (http:// www.micronpc.com), I discovered that you can pick up a Millennia 400 loaded with 64 megabytes of RAM, a 6.4-gigabyte hard drive, a Diamond Viper AGP video card and a 17-inch monitor for about $2,200. A similarly configured 233-MHz Pentium II system goes for about $1,900, but this is about to change.

The rumor is that Intel will announce price cuts on the Pentium II chips this month, ranging from 12% to 20%. Accordingly, you can expect computer prices to drop too.

No discussion of high-speed computing would be complete without some mention of Apple's latest G3 systems. Apple claims that the G3 processor (a.k.a. the PowerPC 750 processor) running at 300 MHz outperforms a Pentium II processor running at 400 MHz. Having worked with both, I think Apple is telling the truth.

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