1GHz: A new standard

AMD and Intel have been racing to hit the 1GHz processor milestone, but AMD has won. PC Labs tests systems from Compaq and Gateway that feature the fast new CPU

The PC reached a major milestone yesterday with the official release of systems running at a whopping 1,000MHz. This number is, of course, destined to be just a speed bump on the computing industry's never-ending journey for more power. Then again, the turn of the millennium was just an arbitrary date on a calendar, but that didn't stop billions from turning out for the world's biggest bash. Similarly, for everyone who loves using PCs, as well as those who chronicle the industry, the arrival of 1,000MHz -- or the more elegant 1GHz -- is a noteworthy event.

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) has been playing spoiler to market leader Intel for some time. Nevertheless, AMD took just about everyone by surprise by suddenly unveiling the 1GHz Athlon processor, just three weeks after shipping an 850MHz version of the chip. Currently, Intel's flagship processor is the 800MHz Pentium III.

While AMD may be winning the marketing game, its early announcement will have little practical advantage, since Intel is reportedly only days away from releasing a 1GHz version of the Pentium III. At the same time or shortly afterward, it is also expected to take the wraps off 850MHz and 866MHz versions.

Whether AMD or Intel will be able to produce enough 1GHz processors to meet the demand remains an open question -- Pentium III/800 systems seem to be in short supply, for instance. Still, there's no shortage of computer manufacturers planning to sell 1GHz systems. Here we test 1GHz Athlon PCs from Compaq and Gateway, as well as a similarly equipped 850MHz Athlon-based Compaq unit. But many second-tier companies, such as CyberMax, Falcon Northwest and Polywell will soon join the Athlon party. Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM are expected to be among the first to offer Pentium III-based systems at speeds up to 1GHz.

What you really want to know is how a 1GHz system performs. There's no doubt that the 1GHz Athlon is the fastest desktop processor we've ever seen, as evidenced by its stellar scores on processor benchmark programs (CPUmark 99 and FPUmark 99). But whether this translates into real-world system performance depends, as always, on the capabilities of other system components and the types of tasks you call on a PC to perform.

It's tempting to say we have enough power already, and to a certain extent, that's true. Those who spend all of their time in Microsoft Word or Excel have little need for a 1GHz system. But there are plenty of reasons you might need a PC this powerful today and tomorrow. Gamers, who can never get enough performance, are an obvious market. And many other applications will benefit, including video-editing, 2D and 3D modelling, and speech recognition. The Internet also plays a part: As broadband becomes more prevalent, users will need more processing power to create, manipulate and view high-quality streaming audio and video.

Our benchmark test results generally follow these trends. On typical business applications, a 1GHz system offers little advantage. The difference between 850MHz and 1GHz Compaq Presario machines on Business Winstone 99 is almost undetectable. In fact, we've received better Business Winstone scores from an 800MHz Pentium III system, the Dell Dimension XPS B800r, bearing in mind that differing system components affect performance.

On higher-end applications, however, the 1GHz systems start to shine. The Gateway Select 1000 stood out on Content Creation Winstone, with a score (34.0) that was 9 percent better than the Dimension XPS B800r and 13 percent better than that of the 850MHz Presario. On 3D WinMark 2000, the Compaq Presario 5900Z 1GHz had an unbelievable score -- 26 percent better than the Dimension XPS B800r and 30 percent better than the Gateway Select 1000. This was due, in part, to its high-end graphics card with DDR (double data rate) memory. Finally, the 1GHz systems consistently performed better on our Internet tests (iBench), especially those that measure high-end features such as Java and Cascading Style Sheets.

All this performance doesn't come cheap, though. Initial systems based on 1GHz processors will range in price from $3,000 to $4,000 (£1,860 to £2,480), depending on the system memory, graphics and multimedia features. Of course, this won't last. As faster processors arrive, prices will drop and eventually 1GHz will seem like yesterday's news. In fact, AMD has already demonstrated a 1.1GHz Athlon, and Intel recently demonstrated a whole new architecture at 1.5GHz, codenamed Willamette, which is nearing completion. But for the moment, at least, 1GHz is a great place to be.

Compaq Presario 5900Z 1GHz

If money's no object, the Compaq Presario 5900Z 1GHz is the system for you. Compaq has spared no expense in making the flagship system ($3,770 street -- £2,337) the best 1GHz Athlon system out of the gate. With its top-notch performance, the Presario 5900Z 1GHz will appeal mostly to gamers and enthusiasts who want the fastest system money can buy.

In addition to the 1GHz processor, the Presario we tested included 128MB SDRAM, a 7,200rpm 40GB Maxtor 54098U8 hard disk and the Creative Labs 3D Blaster Annihilator Pro graphics card with its nVidia GeForce 256 chipset and 32MB of DDR memory. All of this adds up to one serious system.

The Presario 5900Z 1GHz consistently outperformed not only slower Athlon and Pentium III-based systems, but also the Gateway Select 1000 on all benchmark tests except Content Creation Winstone 2000. It was at its best on Business Graphics WinMark 99 and 3D WinMark 2000, however, with untouchable scores. It also excelled on the Internet benchmark tests.

Aside from performance, the Presario 5900Z 1GHz had some welcome touches, such as an included DSL modem (in addition to a 10/100 Ethernet adapter and standard 56K modem), a generous allotment of USB and IEEE 1394 ports on both front and back, and a well-designed keyboard with shortcuts for audio controls and Internet applications. The short warranty (one-year, parts and labour) might give you pause if you're about to plunk down close to $4,000 on a PC, but this isn't a system for the faint hearted.

No doubt, the Compaq Presario 5900Z 1GHz will soon have stiff competition from faster Pentium III systems. But for now, it's the king of the hill.

Gateway Select 1000

AMD has done well in retail stores by providing the building blocks for PCs that offer the same amount of megahertz at a slightly lower price than Pentium III-based systems. The Gateway Select 1000 is a case in point. Its basic configuration is a complete 1GHz system for a street price of $3,000 (£1,860). But at that price, it also offers fewer features than most high-end systems and, aside from a few high points, only marginally better performance than existing systems using Athlon/850 or Pentium III/800 processors.

The Gateway Select includes 128MB SDRAM, a 7,200rpm 30GB hard disk and a proprietary graphics card based on the nVidia GeForce 256 chipset with 32MB SDRAM. The system we tested also included an optional CD-RW drive and Boston Acoustics BA7500 speaker system . The lack of DDR graphics perhaps played a role in the average performance scores. The Gateway Select 1000 notched an excellent score on Content Creation Winstone 2000 and easily held its own on Business Graphics WinMark 99 and the Internet benchmark tests. However, in other areas, such as 3D WinMark 2000, it fell behind.

The Gateway Select 1000 has most of the features you'd expect in a high-end PC, including a 10/100 Ethernet card and 56K modem, keyboard with shortcuts for audio controls and Internet applications. But it has only half the USB ports found on the Compaq Presario 5900Z 1GHz and no IEEE 1394 ports. On a positive note, it is backed by a three-year warranty on parts and labour.

The Gateway Select 1000 offers the most megahertz for your money -- an enticing combination for retail buyers. But at this level, most buyers will be better off going for a system with enhanced graphics and multimedia features.

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