Analysts: Athlon bests Pentium 4

Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon processor is the best PC processor on the planet -- for now.

That was the consensus of analysts at Microprocessor Report, which awarded the chip its prestigious Best PC Processor prize during a ceremony here Thursday night. The Athlon's nod was just the first of several unexpected wins.

This is the second year in a row the analysts gave the Athlon the prize, but this year it faced competition from Intel's Pentium 4 chip, launched in late 2000. The Athlon also defeated its low-cost sibling the Duron and IBM's PowerPC 750CX.

Despite a radical new design and speeds of up to 1.5GHz, the early versions of the P4 just haven't performed that well across the board, said Kevin Krewell, Microprocessor Report senior editor.

"The P4 is too unbalanced," he said after the ceremony. While the chip performs well on multimedia benchmarks, it doesn't execute noticeably better than the 1GHz Pentium III in office applications.

The Athlon, on the other hand, is a very balanced processor with a history of strong benchmark scores that continue to rise as AMD cranks up the frequency and makes other improvements, he said. For example, the move from a 512KB off-die L2 cache to a 256KB on-die cache was a big boost for performance. Plus, AMD recently introduced a chip set to support high-speed DDR memory, which promises to boost performance further, Krewell noted.

Despite the tough competition between AMD and Intel, PC buyers shouldn't expect a speed race this year, Krewell said. It's clear that Intel and the P4 will dominate in the realm of pure megahertz. However, AMD is likely to keep its lead in actual performance for some time, he said. Right now, a PC running a 1.1GHz Athlon with standard PC133 SDRAM will outperform one with a 1.5GHz P4 with RDRAM on most benchmarks, he said.

Systems using the P4 probably won't outperform Athlon-based systems on most benchmarks until the second half of this year, when the P4 hits 2 GHz and the Athlon is stretched at 1.5 GHz, he said.

One thing that could derail the P4's performance improvements is Intel's plans to offer a new chip set that supports less-expensive SDRAM instead of the pricier RDRAM, he said. "Using SDRAM will hurt the P4," he said, because the RDRAM is part of the reason the P4 does so well with multimedia functions.

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