Intel chip awaits new applications

Intel chip awaits new applications

With all of the marketing hype surrounding Intel's Pentium III processor, it is tough to know whether it will actually help a business. I compared the performance of two typical business desktop systems, from Compaq and Hewlett-Packard, testing with both Pentium II and Pentium III CPUs. Many vendors are now, or soon will be, shipping business desktop machines that include the new chip.

The big deal about the Pentium III is its streaming SIMD extensions, or SSE, formerly known as Katmai New Instructions.

(SIMD stands for single instruction, multiple data. You can get the details at pentiumIII.)As one of the three performance enhancements of Intel's multimedia extensions, known as MMX, SIMD lets one microinstruction operate at the same time on multiple data items. This is especially useful for applications in which visual images or audio files are processed.

What usually requires a repeated succession (or loop) of instructions can now be performed in one instruction. Intel offers the analogy of a drill sergeant issuing the order "about face" to an entire platoon rather than to each soldier.

These additional MMX-style routines perform multimedia functions much faster than a normal Pentium II chip can. But because no business applications currently support SSE, those benefits will not be seen for some time. As with MMX, the first applications supporting SSE will most likely be games, such as Quake III, that do a lot of 3D rendering.

The Pentium III CPU ID may concern some users. It is a more serious privacy issue for consumers, but the implications of software tied to a specific CPU should be a red flag for IT managers as well.

I looked at two business desktop systems, a Compaq Deskpro EN running Windows 98 and an HP Vectra VLi8 running Windows NT. I used the test centre's Application Suites for Windows 98 and Windows NT, respectively.

These suites comprise common business applications that do not include SSE enhancements, so the performance numbers probably reflect clock-speed differences rather than inherent CPU improvements.

Consequently, the performance gains I saw with the Pentium III 450MHz pro- cessor in each system were meagre.

With both the Compaq and HP models, the Pentium III CPU performed approximately 2 per cent faster than in the identical system with a Pentium II 450MHz processor installed.

The speed of the 500MHz Pentium III units were more impressive - 9 per cent faster on the Windows 98 system and 10 per cent faster using Windows NT. Of course, if you have an application that uses SSE, you should see much better performance.

My recommendation is that if you do not have a specific application that uses SSE, do not bother with the Pentium III for now. The slight performance gains you will see over a similarly configured Pentium II system are not worth the extra money.

Eventually, as more applications begin supporting SSE and prices drop, the Pentium III will gain in value.

The Bottom Line

Intel Pentium III processor

The Pentium III will not be worth your money until some useful business applications support it. Once developer support for streaming SIMD extensions (SSE, formerly called Katmai) is widespread, the Pentium III may approach its marketing hype.

Pros: PC multimedia performance to reach a new level with SSE.

Cons: Current software lacks support for SSE; privacy and licensing problems for some users due to CPU ID.

Ship date: Available now from systems manufacturers. Check individual manufacturers for pricing.

Intel Tel (02)9937 5800

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