Commentary: The P4 presses on

The market for new PCs may have slowed down a bit, but the race to build faster processors keeps zooming along. With the 1.7GHz Pentium 4 processors, Intel has extended its lead over rival AMD. But is the 1.7GHz gratuitous technology for desktops?

The market for new PCs may have slowed down a bit, but the race to build faster processors keeps zooming along. With the announcement today of the 1.7GHz Pentium 4 processors, Intel has extended its lead--at least in terms of raw clock speed--over rival AMD (the Athlon chip currently tops out at 1.33GHz).

REVIEW--The Pentium 4 was actually introduced last November, but only recently has Intel started to aggressively push the chip which is really designed for high-end applications such as 3D graphics, video encoding and decoding, and other processor-intensive chores. ZDNet Reviews has the lowdown on the latest 1.7GHz P4 systems starting with the Gateway Performance 1700xl--to be followed shortly by the ABS Performance Ultra and HP Vectra VL800MT. These so-called "prosumer" systems should appeal to gamers, Web and multimedia designers, and anyone who just has to have the latest and greatest.

The Intel announcement also coincides with the debut of ZDNet's new performance tests for desktops and notebooks (as well as some peripherals). We won't bore you with all the geeky details on these benchmarks, but it's worth taking a moment to explain the new tests and what they can tell you before you invest as much as $3,000 in a new PC.

The suite of tests ZDNet now uses was developed by BAPCo and its partner, MadOnion.com. The primary BAPCo test we'll be using is SYSmark 2001, which measures all-around performance using off-the-shelf productivity applications (Microsoft Office 2000, Netscape Communicator 6.0, etc.) and content-creation tools (Adobe Photoshop 6.0, Macromedia Dreamweaver 4, etc.).

To simulate real-world performance, SYSmark 2001 throws PCs all kinds of curves--running multiple applications simultaneously, switching between applications, and performing background tasks such as file compression, virus scanning, speech-to-text translation, and video encoding. The main MadOnion.com test, 3DMark2001 Pro, measures 3D gaming performance including most of the features of Microsoft DirectX 8 not found in competing benchmark tests.

The Gateway Performance 1700 was the first desktop system to hit our Labs bench. Since we were using brand new benchmarks, and therefore didn't have much historical data to provide a point of reference, these first scores reminded us a bit of that scene in "This Is Spinal Tap" in which one of the band's members says, referring to the volume control, "But these go to 11." The numbers are high alright, but what the heck do they mean?

To get a better idea, we ran the same test suite on our reference system, a Dell Dimension XPS B800r that, aside from the slower processor, had the same amount of memory (128MB) and same graphics card based on nVidia's GeForce2 Ultra with 64MB DDR memory.

The Performance 1700xl had a 67 percent better score on SYSmark 2001--with the most notable gains on more demanding content-creation applications--and 39 percent better score on 3DMark Pro at 32-bit color. Over the next couple of days, we'll be posting additional reviews of 1.7GHz Pentium 4 desktops to provide more comparison.

But enough about the performance stats. There were lots of other things to like about the Performance 1700xl including a 75GB hard drive, DVD and CD-RW drives, IEEE 1394 (FireWire) card with ports both in front and back, and a TV tuner card. We especially like the gorgeous 19-inch monitor, the VX920 Mitsubishi Diamondtron, which has setting for everything you could think of. This high-end configuration used up every available expansion slot, but who the heck cares when you've got just about everything you could ever want right out of the box?

Of course, all this doesn't come cheap. Available starting today, the Gateway Performance 1700xl we tested costs $2,699 direct. But if you want the ultimate in desktop performance and features, it deserves a spot at the top of your list.

Is the 1.7GHz gratuitous technology for desktops? Or are you the kind of person that can never get enough computing power? Tell us in TalkBack below.

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