Intel has given PC enthusiasts a gift with its latest batch of low-cost Celeron processors -- they can be a viable alternative to the pricier Pentium III chips.
Hardware experts say the new generation of Celerons -- the 566MHz and 600MHz speeds, introduced March 29 -- offer performance similar to the much costlier Pentium IIIs. New Celerons, of 566MHz and faster, are based on Pentium III "Coppermine" core technology and have been nicknamed "Celeron 2".
"If your motherboard can take it... a Celeron 2 will give you a whole lot of computing power for a very attractive price," says Daniel Rutter, an Australian hardware tester, whose Celeron review appeared this week.
A 566MHz Celeron goes for about $122 (around £75), compared to around $207 (about £128) for a 550MHz Pentium III.
The new chips raises an old dilemma for Intel: how to keep its cheaper line of processors looking attractive without undercutting the flagship Pentium brand.
The main difference between Pentium III and the newer Celerons is the memory cache, an area of the chip used to store parts of programs and data for fast access. The size of a cache can have a big impact on certain applications: Celerons have smaller caches than Pentium IIIs, but for most desktop needs they are sufficient.
The other major limitation with Celeron is the bus speed, the speed at which the chip communicates with the rest of the PC. Modern Pentium IIIs have a 100MHz or 133MHz bus speed, while Celeron is limited to 66MHz. But in many cases the bus speed difference would not be noticeable.
For example, based on Intel's own CPUmark 99 numbers, a 500MHz Celeron scored 36.4 and a 450MHz Pentium II scores 33.5, pegging the lowly Celeron at 8.7 percent faster than the PII. A 450MHz PIII tied a 466MHz Celeron on CPUmark.
Indeed, many experts say the Pentium III/Celeron distinction exists primarily in the way the chips are marketed, saying that in practical terms, the two chips are almost the same. "Intel has... made a cheap processor that's much better value than their expensive ones," writes Rutter.
Intel insists Celeron is the same as it has always been: a chip for those who value price above power and flexibility. A key point is that most consumers don't put their own systems together, they buy them prepackaged from an OEM -- and Celeron-based systems tend to be packaged with cheaper, lower-performance components that limit a system's speed and how much it can be expanded with new memory and features.
"People who are performance-sensitive are also flexibility-sensitive," says an Intel spokesman. "Most people who buy PCs never open up the box... but there's a huge additional segment who do upgrade their graphics card or even their processor, and that's where the Pentium III and the 820 chipset come in." The 820 chipset is Intel's higher-performance chipset; the 810 is less costly and is specialised for Celeron.
But people like Rutter emphasise that there's nothing stopping people from running a system with high-performance, high-flexibility components and a Celeron processor. For example, most Pentium III-compatible motherboards are also compatible with the Pentium III-based Celerons; both are available in the newer socketed packaging (see: "Processor makers' flippin' genius")
The bottom line for consumers is not to assume it's best to shell out the extra cash for a Pentium III chip when a Celeron might do just as well more cheaply. "[Celeron] could be a very good upgrade for some -- but not all -- owners of older PII and PIII PCs," Rutter writes.
Whenever Windows is discussed its name is linked to that of Intel, manufacturer of the vast majority of processors, chipsets and even motherboards inside Windows PCs. Why isn't Intel under threat of being broken up in a similar way to Microsoft? Go with Peter Jackson to read the news comment.
What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said.
Take me to the CPU Roadmap: AMD vs. Intel