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Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition

Powerful but pricey, very pricey

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Review It's not very often that Intel falls behind in the processor technology stakes, but that's exactly what has happened recently. When AMD launched its Athlon 64 range of CPUs it grabbed the accolade of having the most advanced x86 processor, writes Riyad Emeran.

Of course Intel will probably argue this point stating that 64-bit processing on the desktop is unnecessary at present. There is some truth in that, but a bit of future proofing never hurt anyone.

But Intel was never going to let AMD have all the limelight to itself, and on the eve of the launch of the Athlon 64 Intel announced a new high powered version of the Pentium 4 called the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition.

To make things even more interesting, Intel has said that the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition is for serious gaming performance, much like the AMD Athlon 64 FX-51. So, after years of trying to convince the world that you needed the fastest processor to run your office applications and Internet browsers, both Intel and AMD are admitting that it's games that demand the cutting edge components.

Unlike the Athlon 64 FX-51, the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition is not based on a completely new core, so it can quite happily drop into any of the current crop of Pentium 4 motherboards. Intel claims that this is a major advantage over its competitor since there is no need to use a costly new motherboard or expensive ECC memory, although cost really isn't something that the Extreme Edition has on its side.

Cache and carry

So, what is it that makes the Extreme Edition so different from a standard 3.2GHz P4? Well the most obvious difference is the huge helping of cache that Intel has added to the Extreme Edition. Just like a standard Pentium 4CPU, the Extreme Edition has 512KB of Level 2 cache, but it also has a mammoth 2MB of Level 3 cache.

Intel is well aware of the performance advantage that increasing the full-speed on-die cache can bring. Back in the mid nineties when Cyrix chips were beating the original Intel Pentium on both price and performance, Intel released the Pentium MMX. No one really took advantage of the MMX instructions, but it was the fact that the MMX chip had twice the amount of Level 1 cache that made it so much faster. Although it has to be mentioned that the MMX Pentium chips didn't cost more than the out-going standard Pentiums.

Intel has made the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition its flagship CPU, which is why this initial chip is running at 3.2GHz; the current peak of Pentium 4 frequency. But don't expect to pick up a cheap 3.2GHz Extreme Edition when the Pentium 4 top frequency moves on. Just like AMD with the Athlon 64 FX-51, Intel has decided that the Extreme Edition will only ever be available at the top clock frequency.

So, is Intel aiming the Extreme Edition at the same hardcore gaming market that AMD is ear marking for the FX-51? Well, not quite. At a recent meeting with Intel I was informed that the Extreme Edition isn't aimed at hardcore gamers, it's aimed at elite gamers. I was understandably confused by that statement and asked for clarification of what an elite gamer was. The response was that an elite gamer is someone who actually makes their living from playing games.

Now, I'm not entirely sure how many so called elite gamers there are in the world, but I'd say it's a safe bet that there aren't too many. Add to this the fact that most gamers that are good enough to make a living out of game tournaments are probably being sponsored by companies like Intel in the first place. Even if they're not being sponsored by the likes of Intel or AMD, there's a good chance that they'll have some kind of sponsor that supplies them with hardware.

So, if you happen to be an elite gamer, and have to buy your own hardware, and have very deep pockets, what kind of performance could you expect from an Extreme Edition?

Benchmarks

Running the SYSmark application benchmark produced a score of 330, which is coincidentally exactly the same result achieved by the Evesham Axis FX51 system based on an Athlon 64 FX-51 with 400MHz dual channel memory. Running the same benchmark on a standard 3.2GHz Pentium 4 produced a score of 321, which is lower than the Extreme Edition but not significantly.

The Extreme Edition turned in a score of 19,834 in 3DMark 2001 SE compared to 18,748 on a standard 3.2GHz P4. The Athlon 64 FX-51 system managed a score of 19,812 placing it right next to the Extreme Edition once more.

It's a similar story running 3DMark03. The Extreme Edition managed 5,945 compared to 5,854 on the standard 3.2GHz P4. In this test the FX-51 system clawed ahead slightly with a score of 5,992.

Aquamark showed almost no difference between the standard P4 and the Extreme Edition with average frame rates of 44.5 and 44.9 respectively.

Where the Extreme Edition really pulled ahead was in the memory test under PCMark and the SiSoft Sandra cache test, which isn't too surprising.

You can view the charts here.

So it looks like the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition is faster than a standard 3.2GHz chip, and roughly on a par with the AMD Athlon 64 FX-51. Of course it has to be remembered that the FX-51 will actually perform faster in a 64-bit environment. That said, you'll have to upgrade to a 64-bit operating system, with a full complement of 64-bit drivers and 64-bit applications to take advantage of the advanced technology inherent in the Athlon 64 range.

It's also worth mentioning that the Extreme Edition is equipped with Intel's Hyper Threading technology, which is useful for anyone who multitasks heavily. Where Hyper Threading really shines though is with multi-threaded applications, where you can see tangible performance gains over non Hyper Threaded processors. Obviously you're not going to see the kind of performance increase that you get from a true multi-processor system, but an increase is definitely there.

In today's environment Intel has produced a chip that can hold its ground with the latest technological marvel from rival AMD. Ok, throwing a load of cache at a current generation chip may seem a little ham fisted, but Intel has achieved what it set out to do by not getting left behind in the performance race.

However, large amounts of fast cache don't come cheap, and the price of the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition is quite scary to say the least. I remember when AMD told me that the FX-51 was going to cost $733 at launch and thinking that there wouldn't be many buyers at that price. But now that Intel has announced pricing for the Extreme Edition at $925 in quantities of 1,000, the cost of the FX-51 seems a lot more reasonable. I still haven't had confirmation of UK pricing, but it's safe to say that it will be the most expensive desktop processor you can buy.

I doubt very much that too many Extreme Edition chips will find homes here in the UK. There probably won't be too many PCs built with them either, since system integrators will find it near impossible to create an affordable system based on such a platform. If you're the type of person that just has to have the fastest possible components in your PC and you have a huge amount of money to burn, you might find the Extreme Edition an attractive proposition. Otherwise, there are far cheaper ways to build a fast PC.

Verdict

Whether or not you believe that this chip was announced purely to rain on AMD's parade is irrelevant. What matters here is that Intel has created a very fast CPU and consequently hasn't been left behind by its competitor. Unfortunately the price of the Extreme Edition is quite simply too prohibitive for the vast majority of PC users, no matter how obsessed with games they might be.

Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition
Rating 70%
Price $925
More info www.intel.com


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