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Our first look at Intel's Northwood P4

A hint of things to come

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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Our new Intel Northwood 0.13-micron P4 and mobo are about to go through several evaluations here at Vulture Central on Windows and Linux, and against the AMD XP-2000 under the same OS's; but we thought you'd enjoy hearing our initial impressions fresh from having installed it. We'll give you the bad news first, then the good news.

A few details

We've got the 2.2gHz part mounted on an Intel D850MVSE mobo, with 512M RDRAM divided to exploit the dual-channel memory controller. We'll get into more detail later in the week, as we perform our comparisons.

You've no doubt heard that the Northwood is smaller and cooler-running than the current P4. It is both, and impressively so. (Methodology: hand held two inches in front of CPU fan, and palpating heatsink fins with fingertips. Same fan, same heatsink; big difference. Do you really need to know more?)

We've set up our HDDs with Linux and Windows. The master is booting SuSE 7.3 Pro (kernel patched to 2.4.17 by me) and the slave is booting Windows-XP Pro (patched in total secrecy by Microsoft after connecting to the MS update site). Otherwise they're identical Maxtor D740X 20G ATA-133 drives fed for now by Intel's ATA-100 onboard controller. (Our Promise ATA-133 PCI card will be tested later this week.)

For now we're using a Dell/Nvidia GeForce DDR 64M, but we'll be switching to the new GeForce-3 Ti-500 later this week as well, so stay tuned.

Installation

First up, after swapping the hardware, I decided to install a single WDC ATA-66 20M HDD already set up with Windows 98. But this was impossible. The Windows 'new hardware wizard' was extremely eager to install the drivers for my new mobo, but unfortunately it didn't recognize my CD-Rom drive -- the very same drive from which I originally installed 98, mind you. So I cancelled all the requests for driver installation and continued booting -- to a useless blank screen.

I double-checked my BIOS settings and confirmed that nothing was amiss. Since the drivers were all on an Intel CD (no floppy backup provided), there was nothing to be done. Catch-22: I needed the drivers so Windows could access the CD which the drivers were on. So if you're going to install a P4 and keep an existing, older Windows installation, you'll have to copy the drivers to a floppy before you swap the hardware, unless your mobo maker is a bit more considerate.

Next I did a clean install of SuSE Linux (with ext3 first and later with ReiserFS) on one of the new Maxtors and a clean install of Win-XP (with FAT) on the other, and patched/updated both. This included the latest Nvidia drivers for the GeForce, naturally.

With Linux I had major problems with IDE read errors and had to disable DMA until after I'd got it installed and patched. Even then, the overall 'feel' under Linux was really nothing special. Konqueror and and its even slower cousin Nautilus still took an eternity to read a large directory (which undoubtedly has a lot more to do with the Linux file system than with Intel). The kernel recompile was roughly the same as with a P3 and 256M RDRAM. Windows opened a bit faster under X but not dramatically so.

The promised land

As for installing Win-XP, there's nothing to report. Everything went off without a hitch. I patched my system with the MS auto-update feature, installed the latest video drivers, installed the Intel drivers off the CD, re-booted, and that was that.

The gluttonous power-hungry OS ran like a bandit on the new P4. I mean windows popped open before the sound of the mouse-click died in the air. Huge directories flew open under Win Explorer -- even a large directory of images viewed in thumbnail mode. (We'll do some specific tests with consistent volumes and timing later on, involving Windows, Linux, and also the AMD XP2K.)

I couldn't resist installing Quake3 and running it with maximum display detail and audio quality. Again, this is just an initial observation, but I wouldn't want Quake to run any faster. (Here again, we'll get into the FPS benchmarks later this week.)

For a first impression of the Win-XP/Northwood combo all I can say is, it was immediately clear that this system and OS are made for each other. Both are expensive; but both thus far appear to deliver, at least in combination, just what they advertise.

To-do list

The next item we'll publish will be a more thorough evaluation of the Northwood's performance under Linux and Windows, focusing on real-world computing like running games and graphics apps, multimedia apps, copying and reading large directories, and multi-tasking under a considerable load of simultaneous processor-and-RAM-hungry tasks.

Finally, either late this week or early next, we'll do the same tests on both Linux and Windows using the Athlon XP with 512M DDR SDRAM, which we'll compare to the Northwood with 512M RDRAM.

Now, some may wonder why I would compare Intel with RDRAM to AMD with DDR. And the answer is simple. I could just as easily compare RAM performance with a straight Intel RDRAM vs DDR comparison, or CPU performance with an Intel/DDR vs Athlon/DDR setup; but it seems to me that Intel has optimized for RDRAM and AMD for DDR, so this way we'll get a contest between two best-of-breed systems, rather than mere parts.

Thus Intel and AMD will each get to put their best foot forward. We'll look to see if the systems differ; and if so, on which operating systems they differ. Publishing a review which focuses on mere benchmarks or specific parts on a single OS is, in my humble opinion, a waste of my time, and more importantly, of yours. ®

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