Intel Northwood fails to take the lead

First test results show that Intel's new Pentium 4 'Northwood' processor does not, as some observers predicted, leave AMD's Athlon in the dust. For many mainstream applications, the Athlon is still faster

Intel has finally released its long-awaited Northwood version of the Pentium 4 processor, adding a number of performance improvements, but the initial round of benchmarks shows that the new Pentium's performance still lags behind the less-expensive Athlon XP 2000+ in many key areas.

The "Northwood" is the first Pentium 4 to be manufactured to 0.13-micron geometry, which shrinks the size of the processor die from an exceptionally large 217 square millimetres to 146 square millimetres -- still larger than the Athlon XP's 128 square millimetres. This switch makes the processor run faster, consume less power and emit less heat, while also reducing manufacturing costs, which have been high for the P4. Intel has also boosted the level 2 (L2) memory cache from 256KB to 512KB, meaning that more frequently accessed data can be stored directly on the processor die, leading to faster performance.

By contrast, the Athlon XP 2000+ has 128KB of L1 cache, 256KB of L2 cache, and is still manufactured to a 0.18-micron process (AMD is planning to move Athlon to a 0.13-micron process in a few weeks' time). Some industry observers had guessed that Northwood would create such a wide performance gap between the Athlon and the Pentium that AMD would have to struggle to catch up.

Not so, according to an extensive array of benchmark tests carried out by ZDNet Germany. While the new Pentiums do beat Athlon XP in some areas, such as multimedia creation, in most categories the Athlon edges ahead of the fastest Pentium 4 -- which costs over $200 (£140) more.

The Athlon XP 2000+ currently costs about $339, while the 2.2GHz Northwood Pentium 4 costs $562. A 2GHz Northwood Pentium 4 costs $364, and the older Willamette Pentium 4 running at 2GHz costs $278.

Another factor affecting system price is that the Northwood can run either Rambus RDRAM memory, which delivers more performance at a significantly greater cost, or less expensive double data-rate (DDR) DRAM. DDR-based Pentium 4s generally lagged Athlon XPs outfitted with the same memory type.

Athlon XP far outpaced the top-of-the-range Pentium 4s on the ZD Business Winstone benchmark, which measures performance for everyday applications such as productivity suites. Athlon XP 2000+ scored 70.2, compared with 65.6 for the 2.2GHz Pentium 4 running on RDRAM, and 62.6 for the same chip using DDR.

On the other hand, the 2.2GHz RDRAM Pentium 4 came out on top with the ZD Content Creation Winstone, which measures performance on high-end graphics applications, reaching 36.5. Athlon XP 2000+ hit 35.4. However, the 2.2GHz Pentium 4 part using DDR memory reached 34.1.

In other categories, Athlon generally performed better than the fastest Pentium 4, even outfitted with RDRAM. For example, the Athlon XP 2000+ carried out the MusicMatch Jukebox 6.1 MP3-encoding test in 5.2 seconds, compared with the 2.2GHz Pentium 4 RDRAM's 5.9 seconds. In the 3D Studio Max 4.2 graphics rendering test, the Athlon finished in 20 seconds compared with 22 seconds for the Pentium.

Exceptions included gaming and Internet applications, many of which have been software-optimised for the Pentium's multimedia extensions. With Adobe Acrobat the 2.2GHz RDRAM Pentium 4 scored 2.72 seconds compared to 4.02 seconds for the Athlon XP 2000+. The 2.2GHz Pentium 4 with RDRAM scored 82.5 in a test of Flash, compared with 81.7 for the Athlon XP 2000+. However, the same Pentium 4 with DDR scored below the Athlon XP 1800+ on the Flash test, achieving only 77.7.

On games such as Quake III, the 2.2GHz Pentium 4 with RDRAM generally scored better than the Athlon XP 2000+, although the 2.2GHz Pentium 4 with DDR scored below the Athlon XP 2000+, and sometimes scored below the Athlon XP 1800+.

Of course, the two companies both have their own take on their product's performance. "Unequivocally, it is the fastest thing on the planet," said Louis Burns, vice president and general manager of the desktop products group at Intel, of the new Pentium 4 chips.

Mark Bode, division marketing manager for AMD, responded, "We've got a product that is hands down the proven performance leader."

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.

You can read a review of one of the first systems available with the Pentium 4 'Northwood' processor -- the Dell Dimension 4400 -- by clicking here.

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