Intel - 'How fast are those Celerons?'

Contrary to what Intel would have us believe, its new 366MHz and 400MHz Celeron processors are just as fast as its 350MHz and 400MHz Pentium II chips.

PC Week Labs' tests of two Celeron-based systems released this week show that the once-gutless--no L2 (Level 2) cache--Celeron chip with a consumer focus has been transformed into a serious contender for corporate desktop PCs. Buyers will now find Celeron-equipped systems as powerful as Pentium II machines for hundreds of dollars less.

So what's the catch? Well, Intel sees the Celeron and Pentium II processors as serving different markets. The Celeron, company officials have claimed, is for the "value-conscious" buyer, whereas the Pentium II is for buyers who demand the most powerful system on the market.

As a result, we expect the leading PC vendors to place the Celeron processor in systems that may not offer state-of-the-art components. These PCs would still offer the manageability expected by corporate buyers, just in a less elegant system. This is a shame because, given the same level of components, the Celeron is the match of any Pentium II running typical corporate desktop applications.

The just-released Celeron systems we tested were Compaq Computer Corp.'s Deskpro EN and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Vectra VE. The Deskpro EN was equipped with the 400MHz Celeron processor and costs $1,555 (£960) for the configuration we tested. The Vectra VE came with the 366MHz Celeron and tallied just $1,199 (£730) for the configuration we tested. (Both dollar figures are estimated street prices.)

For comparison, we tested a 400MHz Celeron and a 400MHz and 350MHz Pentium II in the Vectra VE. The 400MHz Celeron Vectra VE won't be available until later in the first quarter. At the start of testing, we expected the Pentium II to outperform the Celeron. On paper, it seems probable that the Pentium II's faster external bus (100MHz vs. 66MHz) and larger L2 cache (512KB vs. 128KB) would provide an edge in performance over the Celeron. Guess again: Benchmark results showed otherwise.

Part of the Celeron's great performance comes from the fact that its L2 cache runs at the processor's clock speed. The Pentium II's L2 cache runs at half the processor's clock speed. On both the business application-based Winstone 99 and the high-end application-based Winstone 99 benchmark, the Celeron proved capable of taking the Pentium II head on: No significant performance difference was observed between the two processors. Of the two Celeron-based systems, the Deskpro EN was slightly faster than the Vectra VE.

These benchmark results contradict Intel's claim that the Pentium II is the clear performance leader. Both chips offer equal levels of performance when running common desktop applications.

What do these chips mean for business buyers? In the case of the Celeron-powered PCs we tested, they mean great performance at an exceptional price.

Unlike the performance of the Celeron chips inside, neither the Deskpro EN nor the Vectra VE has any real surprises. Both have been on the market for a while and offer the typical items designed to entice corporate buyers: support for DMI (Desktop Management Interface) 2.0, Wake on LAN, remote management, early failure detection, easy-to-service designs and expandability.

The Deskpro EN and Vectra VE have switched motherboards, which make it possible to use either the 66MHz-bus-speed Celeron or the 100MHz-bus-speed Pentium II. Setting a few dip switches is all it takes to swap chips. Standardising on one motherboard has the potential to lower service support costs by reducing the number of components.

The Deskpro EN is the hands-down winner in terms of serviceability. Without touching a single screw, we removed the case, the floppy drive, the CD-ROM drive, the hard disk drive and the motherboard. Plastic tabs and levers are used throughout, and the payoff is a system that is simply a delight to disassemble (and reassemble). The Vectra VE's design is better than average and includes tabs for removing the hard and floppy drives, but it falls short of the Deskpro EN's design.

Users considering expansion will find that both systems fill the bill. The minitower Vectra VE has five PCI slots, one shared PCI/ISA slot and one dedicated ISA slot. The Deskpro EN desktop model has two PCI slots and two shared PCI/ISA slots.

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