Faster processors make the decision difficult

This is the last column I'll write on my AST Bravo MS-T 6200. Although I upgraded the system's video card and memory last year, its 200MHz Pentium Pro processor just isn't going to cut it much longer. The AST system is 5 years old, and Moore's Law dictates that much faster systems are available now.

In 1965, Intel's Gordon Moore wrote that technological advances were reducing the surface area of a transistor by 50 percent every 12 months (he later revised this time frame to every 24 months). As the number of transistors per chip increases, the amount of RAM you can get also increases—and because the transistors are closer together, processor speed increases as well. The result is a huge increase in throughput, which software developers exploit to write more complex programs that require new systems to run.

My experience supports Moore's Law. My first system in the mid-1970s was a Tandy RadioShack TRS-80 with 16KB of RAM and a 1MHz processor. Since then, the memory and speed of systems I've owned have increased in accordance with Moore's Law. Now, Moore's Law has caught up with me again, and I need to buy a new system. I'll explain how I decided which system to purchase.

Requirements
Deciding which features you need in a new system starts with defining what you plan to do with it. For me, the key applications are word processing and email. My system also needs enough capacity to run review software for Windows 2000 Magazine and other magazines. The system must be fast enough to run the programs I need it to without stalling. I'm a private pilot and aviation writer, so Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 is a key application. I've been running Flight Simulator 2000 on the AST system, but I've had to use the lowest resolution settings to get acceptable performance. Considering the recommended system requirements for my important applications and advice from other users, I believe a 400MHz to 600MHz CPU with 128MB of RAM would meet my needs.

However, I plan to double those minimum requirements because high-performance processors and extra memory are relatively inexpensive, and I want to keep the new PC for at least 18 months. Consequently, I looked for a system with an 800MHz to 1.2GB CPU and 256MB of RAM.

My main performance-limited application, Flight Simulator 2000, is video-dependent, so I need a top-end 3-D video card. I checked several game-related Web sites for information about high-quality video cards, and my research produced a strong favorite: an Intel AGP video card based on NVIDIA's GeForce2 graphics chipset with 32MB of VRAM. This video card is standard on most of the midrange power-user systems I considered.

I also need to expand my system's hard disk. My current system's 11.5GB of hard disk space is 95 percent full. (To check how much space your Win2K Professional system's hard disk has, go to Control Panel, Administrative Tools, Computer Management, Storage/Disk Management.) On my previous systems, my needs have always outgrown the available disk space, so I want my new system to have a 30GB to 40GB hard disk.

I don't have a strong preference about the type of disk controller my new system will have. For many years, I preferred SCSI because a senior member of the Windows NT development team told me that he liked SCSI so much that when he bought mainstream PCs for his personal use, he would replace non-SCSI controllers and drives. However, the same developer later told me that IDE-driver development had progressed to the point that he no longer could justify SCSI on single-CPU systems. SCSI, IDE, or the newer ATA100 will work on my new system.

My new system's CD-ROM drive needs to be bootable (Whistler and subsequent Microsoft OSs won't use 3.5" boot disks). I don't need a DVD-ROM drive; however, occasionally I'd like to burn a custom CD-ROM, so I'll get a CD-Rewritable (CD-RW) drive. Additionally, I'll need a basic 10/100Mbps Ethernet card, a 56Kbps modem, parallel and serial ports, and a basic sound card. I'll also get a system with USB because many new devices need USB.

Processor Wars
I began looking for a new system last fall, and I thought the CPU would be the easiest system element to select. I simply intended to get the fastest Pentium III processor that I could afford. But my decision-making process became more complicated when Intel released the Pentium 4 processor, which is potentially much faster than a Pentium III processor. One reason that Intel developed the Pentium 4 processor is that the company wants software developers to modify their programs to take advantage of new Streaming SIMD Extensions (SSE), which is the latest generation of Intel's MMX multimedia instructions. When and if such programs appear, they might give the Pentium 4 processor a real performance edge over all comers.

I began wondering whether I should pay $500 to $1000 extra to get a system with a Pentium 4, so I looked for Pentium 4 performance data. The best reviews of Pentium 4 performance that I've found to date are at Tom's Hardware Guide (http://www.tomshardware.com). The detailed reviews compare the performance of systems based on the Pentium III processor, the Pentium 4 processor, and Advanced Micro Devices' AMD Athlon processor. To my surprise, the AMD Athlon equals or beats the Pentium 4's performance in a variety of tests.

I've largely ignored the processor market for the past few years; when I last was fully up-to-speed on processors, AMD sold processors mainly to second-tier PC makers for low-end systems. I'd noticed that AMD managed to get a 1GHz processor into volume production before Intel; but what I found at Tom's Hardware Guide—and subsequently on several PC vendors' Web sites—was a revelation. The sources I checked were nearly unanimous that the 1.2GHz AMD Athlon is today's performance champ, and AMD Athlon-based systems are no more expensive than 1GHz Pentium III systems. (To learn more about sources of hardware information, see the sidebar "Valuable Resources for Hardware Shoppers.")

I faced a quandary: Should I save a little money now and get an Athlon-based system, or spend more for a Pentium 4-based system? The answer came after I checked Microsoft's Web site. I browsed to http://search.microsoft.com and typed in "Pentium 4" as the search text. The search produced nine hits, all of which mentioned SSE support. But the articles also referred to AMD's 3DNow! instruction set, a technology that is roughly equivalent to SSE. Microsoft is expending as much effort developing for 3DNow! as it is for SSE, so I decided that my new system would have an AMD Athlon processor.

Picking a System
Before I decided which system to buy, I considered an option that's uniquely available to Win2K Pro users: a dual-processor SMP workstation with only one filled socket. The first processor would be fast enough for my current needs, and I could add the second processor (and probably extra RAM) when necessary. However, as I studied the Compaq, Hewlett-Packard (HP), and IBM Web sites, I rejected the dual-processor idea. Although the prices of systems that support dual processors have come down in recent years, the systems are still far from cheap. I found prices ranging from $2800 to $3300 among the different vendors; moreover, all the systems are 900MHz Pentium III systems. Nobody makes a dual-CPU AMD Athlon machine because AMD's current Athlon chipset doesn't support SMP (however, future Athlon chipsets might support SMP), and dual-processor Pentium 4 systems haven't appeared yet.

The lower end of the dual-processor range still might sound like a good deal—$2800 for a system that potentially has almost twice the performance of a single-CPU machine. But those dual-processor systems aren't such a good deal when you consider that adding the second processor costs another $1000. I decided to save the money, buy a single-processor system, and replace my system in 18 to 24 months, by which time I should be able to get twice the RAM and CPU speed at the same price, according to Moore's Law.

As I narrowed the specifications for my new system, I began shopping. I prefer brand-name systems (years ago, I had a bad experience trying to get an off-brand system repaired after the maker went out of business), so I decided to look at the available AMD Athlon-based systems from Compaq, Dell, Gateway, HP, and IBM. I eliminated Dell because the company sold only Intel processors. Most models that met my specifications cost about $2000. The standout was IBM's NetVista A40i; just $1550 for a 1GHz AMD Athlon-based system with 256MB of RAM and a 30GB hard disk. To read about my experience with this system, see "Athlon!" http://www.win2000mag.com/ articles, InstantDoc ID 19819.