Fastest chip never worth highest price

November 05, 2001|By Mike Himowitz

THE LAST nine months have brought bad news to PC makers but good news to consumers shopping for computers. Intel and AMD, the two main competitors in the PC processor market, are engaged in a pricing slugfest, which doesn't do much for their bottom lines, but can certainly help yours.

The chip makers announced their latest round of cuts last week, and a look at their price lists illustrates why you should never buy the fastest processor on the market: It isn't worth the dough.

First, a word about speed. A faster computer will usually work better and more reliably than a slower machine, particularly if you want to run multiple programs simultaneously. For example, if you're working on a Word processing document and a spreadsheet while you're downloading music over the Internet and playing an audio CD, you'll benefit from a faster PC. The same goes for programs that require lots of horsepower, such as 3D action games and full-motion video editors.

The microprocessor plays a pivotal role in determining how fast the computer runs, but it's not the only factor. The amount of memory available, the speed of the hard drive and the quality of your PC's video card are just as important for overall performance.

Still, consumers and advertisers tend to focus on processor speed when they're buying and selling. Knowing something about it can save you real money.

Two factors determine how fast a chip operates - its internal design and the number of times per second that it can carry out a typical, simple instruction. This is expressed in cycles per second.

Newer generations of chips are more efficient than older models. They can carry out more complex instructions, or even handle multiple instructions simultaneously. As a result, Intel's Pentium IV can inherently perform certain operations - particularly those involving multimedia - faster than its predecessors, the Pentium III and Pentium II.

It's hard to measure this type of speed increase because it depends on the program you're running. An enhanced chip design may not help you write a letter, but it can give you a real buzz in a 3D shoot-em-up.

Also, speed is a relative measure of a processor's performance. It's only applicable within the same chip family. For example, because of internal design efficiencies, AMD's top-rated Athlon operates just as fast in most applications as Intel's "faster" P4 chip, which has a higher clock cycle. In fact, the fastest chips on the consumer market are the PowerPC processors in Apple's G4 Macs, but their rated speed is less than half of Intel's or AMD's. The G4 just gets more done with each clock cycle.

This makes it hard to compare processors from different manufacturers. To sort through the mess, publishers and laboratories have developed standardized tests, called benchmarks, to figure out how well equipment works in real environments. The best known are published by PC Magazine's labs ( They're a much better indicator of a particular computer's speed than raw numbers.

That said, within each chip family, speed is measured in "hertz," the geek's term for cycles per second. Slower chips are rated in megahertz (MHz), or millions of cycles per second, while faster chips are measured in gigahertz (GHz), or billions of cycles. The timing of your computer is regulated by an internal clock, which can usually be set for several different speeds, depending on the quality of the processor in it.

Now for the dirty little secret: All Pentium IV chips designed for a particular type of computer are basically the same - they come from the same silicon wafers. Their "speed" is determined by testing them to see how fast they'll run without flaking out. The same goes for similar models of Athlons, Celerons, G4s, etc.

Why the variance? Chip making is one of the most precise manufacturing processes known to man, but it's not entirely predictable because it operates so close to the molecular level of the materials the chip is made from. Some chips have more microscopic defects and irregularities than others. They'll run fine, but not at the highest possible speed.

Chips that will run at the highest speed are relatively rare and command a premium - usually from the kind of people who would buy a Maserati if they could afford it. Chips that run at marginally lower speeds are far more common and hence cheaper. A lot cheaper.

As time goes by and manufacturing techniques improve, yields increase and manufacturers lower their chip prices. The deepest cuts occur just before new models are introduced, or when a competitor decides to start slugging away. The differences can be dramatic.

For example, Intel now charges $401 for its speediest, 2-GHz Pentium 4 chip, $273 for its 1.9-GHZ model and $225 for its 1.8 GHz processor. Those are wholesale prices, by the way; the company that builds your PC takes a markup, too. Dell, for instance, charges customers $340 more for a top of the line P4 chip than it does for the same PC with a 1.8 GHz processor.

A little basic math will show you that the speediest P4 is just 11 percent faster than the 1.8 GHz chip, but it commands a whopping 78 percent premium.

That's strictly theoretical speed. You get almost nothing in terms of real performance. Could you sit in the passenger seat of a car and determine whether it was traveling at 18 mph or 20 mph without looking at the speedometer? Likewise, I doubt that anyone who isn't armed with benchmark software can tell the difference between computers powered by 1.8 and 2 GHz chips.

What can you do with the $340 you save by forgoing the equivalent of a muscle car? Well, you could put it in the bank. Or at least buy something useful. For that dough you can purchase an extra 128 megabytes of memory (which will make your computer faster) and have enough left over for a CD-burner or DVD player, an upgrade to a 19-inch monitor and a bottle of '93 Dom Perignon to toast your perspicacity.


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