- Excellent performance, especially from the graphics subsystem
- good USB connectivity.
- Lack of on-board USB 2.0 support means an extra PCI slot is used up to provide it
- on-board Ultra-ATA/133 and FireWire support is also lacking
- chipset supports PC800 Rambus only.
The latest round in Intel's long-running battle with AMD to be king of the desktop PC castle sees the Pentium 4 processor's frontside bus rising from 400MHz to 533MHz. Although few everyday applications are limited by the bandwidth of the frontside bus, a new system architecture element always adds spice to a review, so we were keen to see how the first 533MHz-bus Pentium 4 system we received fared. Predictably enough, the desktop PC in question was supplied by Dell.
Before getting too excited about the new components, it's worth pointing out some of the shortcomings of the first 533MHz-bus Pentium 4 systems. Intel has released three new chips with the faster FSB, running at clock speeds of 2.53GHz, 2.4GHz and 2.26GHz, and these naturally require a chipset that supports the 533MHz bus (which is in effect a 'quad-pumped' 133MHz bus). Currently the only available chipset is Intel's new 850E, which lacks some key features. First, the 850E only supports existing PC800 memory rather than the new higher-bandwidth PC1066 memory (at least officially). Second, the 850E uses the existing ICH2 peripheral controller chip, which rules out motherboard support for Ultra-ATA/133 hard disks and USB 2.0 devices. Both of the latter features can be added via PCI cards, but the first crop of 533MHz FSB systems are clearly interim products.
Dell sent us a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 system equipped with the 533MHz bus and 850E chipset. Two of its four RIMM slots were populated with 512MB of PC800 memory -- a quarter of the maximum possible complement of 2,048MB (2GB). The tower case is Dell's tool-free, hinge-open affair, with a lift-up flap at the front covering a pair of USB 1.1 ports and the headphone jack. Two more standard USB ports are provided on the motherboard's backplane, and Dell has implemented USB 2.0 in this system via a Belkin PCI card that carries four external ports and one internal connector. The remainder of the motherboard's quartet of PCI slots are occupied, by a Turtle Beach Santa Cruz sound card, a 3Com 10/100Mbps Ethernet card and a Lucent 56Kbps modem.
Fixed storage is provided by a massive 120GB Western Digital ATA/100 drive with a rotational speed of 7,200rpm, and there are two 5.25in. optical drives -- a 16X DVD-ROM drive and a 40X write, 10X rewrite CD-RW drive. The remaining removable media drive is a standard 3.5in, 1.44MB floppy. There's a free external bay for another 3.5in. drive such as a Zip if required, plus a free internal 3.5in. bay. Although there's plenty of expansion potential via USB, digital camcorder users will notice the absence of FireWire (IEEE 1394) support.
One of this system's undoubted highlights is its graphics subsystem, which is based around an OEM board that uses nVidia's leading-edge GeForce4 Ti 4600 chip, supported by a massive 128MB of DDR memory. This delivers superb performance with today's games, and is pretty well future-proofed as gaming cards go, given that many developers have yet to get to grips with the GeForce4's functionality. The monitor supplied with our review system was Dell's 17in. 1702FP, a good-quality flat-panel TFT unit. You can specify a cheaper but bigger 19in. CRT display, in which case the overall system cost reduces from £1,749 (ex. VAT) to £1,549 (ex. VAT).
As you’d expect given its specification, the 2.4GHz, 533MHz-bus Dimension 8200 is an impressive performer. Its Business Winstone 2001 score of 59.8 is the third highest we’ve recorded, the highest being delivered by the AMD Athlon XP 2100+-based Mesh Matrix 2100+ PPC. However, the Dell system's Content Creation Winstone 2002 score of 40.3 is the highest we’ve seen to date, and is an indication of where the Pentium 4’s strengths lie -- with applications that place heavy demands on the CPU/memory subsystem. As far as graphics performance is concerned, the combination of a 128MB GeForce4 Ti 4600-based graphics card and a 2.4GHz CPU is a winner: even with the highest level of image quality enhancements turned on (4xS anti-aliasing), this system’s 3DMark 2001 score of 5,528 is only just behind our reference 2GHz P4 system’s 'no-anti-aliasing' score of 5,823. With no anti-aliasing, the 2.4GHz/533MHz-bus system delivers a stratospheric score of 11,030.
Despite this system’s impressive benchmarks, if you want the absolute maximum performance regardless of cost, you might be advised to wait for Pentium 4 chipsets with official support for PC1066 Rambus. And if you want a cheaper 533MHz-bus system, wait for chipsets that support DDR SDRAM rather than Rambus. If you follow either of these courses, you will also get the advantage of on-board ATA/133 and USB 2.0 support, rather than having to rely on add-in cards.