Intel's Pentium II: What it means for the Mac

The drama has been building for months. Since Intel released the MMX-enabled Pentium in January, all eyes have been turned towards the PC chip giant's home in Santa Clara, California, awaiting the unveiling of the MMX-enabled Pentium Pro, called the Pentium II and known by its code name Klamath. But the PowerPC range retains a significant advantage over Pentium II in key areas.

The drama has been building for months. Since Intel released the MMX-enabled Pentium in January, all eyes have been turned towards the PC chip giant's home in Santa Clara, California, awaiting the unveiling of the MMX-enabled Pentium Pro, called the Pentium II and known by its code name Klamath.

Intel today took the wraps off this latest-generation CPU, following yesterday's release in the European market and multiple product announcements from PC systems vendors including Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp. and Gateway 2000 Inc.

In contrast to its rollout of MMX technology, which was introduced with the 200-MHz Pentium, the Pentium II is targeted at business users, not consumers, largely because the new chip ranks a notch higher on the megahertz ladder. It is also optimised for 32-bit applications, which means Windows NT.

The new Pentium IIs run at 233 MHz and 266 MHz, sell for US$636 and $775 respectively (volume sales of 1,000), and include 512K bytes of Level 2 cache. The CPU and separate cache chips sit on a separate card with a fan positioned directly in front of the card.

Although Mac systems are already shipping with 300-MHz 603e PowerPC chips, at 233 MHz and 266 MHz, Intel appears to be running neck and neck with the current lineup of 604e processors (233-MHz versions are now shipping, 250-MHz versions are forthcoming from IBM and Motorola Inc., and the next generation of PowerPC, called the G3, will be rolled out at speeds of up to 300 MHz before the end of the year).

Intel is claiming its 266-MHz Pentium II will offer one-and-a-half to two times the performance of a 200-MHz Pentium on standard business applications, and more than double performance on multimedia applications. We tested a 233-MHz Pentium II-based PC and the results come close to delivering those claims, even at that clock speed. Our results don't go quite that high, but they do show marked improvement over previous PCs.

So what do these test results and new Intel CPU developments mean for the Mac? While Intel had previously surpassed the PowerPC in terms of market share and certainly advertising dollars, is Intel finally catching up to the PowerPC in terms of speed?

Our results show the Mac maintains a significant advantage over Pentium II-based PCs in key areas: Overall, a prototype of the Umax SuperMac S900/250 ranked higher than the 233-MHz Pentium II system from CompuLink Research. It also excelled in digital video and image editing, but surprisingly the Pentium II outpaced the SuperMac S900/250 in publishing operations. Overall, the 233-MHz Pentium II PC was about on par with a 225-MHz 604e-based PowerTower Pro from Power Computing.

And Macs promise to outdo their current performance numbers as their bus speeds climb to 60 MHz and 66 MHz, the current PC bus speeds. Preliminary tests on a 266-MHz PowerPC G3-based prototype from Motorola show an even greater Mac advantage to come.

The Motorola Viper prototype uses a 66-MHz system bus, and overall runs about 1.2 times as fast as the 233-MHz Pentium II PC (which also uses a 66-MHz bus). Based on projections of a 266-MHz Pentium II PC's speeds, the 266-MHz G3-based Mac should still win by 5 percent to 10 percent, and 266 MHz is just the beginning for the G3, while the Pentium II will likely not go past 300 MHz. Plus, as Apple continues to make the Mac OS more PowerPC-native, expect to see even greater speeds -- Mac OS 8 should boost overall performance by another 5 percent or so over Mac OS 7.6.

Amidst all the fanfare, it's also been something of a hard week for Intel. Earlier in the week, reports circulated regarding a bug in the Pentium II's floating-point processor reminiscent of a similar bug discovered in the Pentium Pro. Intel downplayed the results, saying these were likely uncovered in their errata sheets on the Pentium II. And a London researcher said corporate sales of the MMX Pentium have lagged.

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