Intel's Pentium III
Do You Really Need One???

Introduction
After being bombarded since the Super Bowl by Intel's media blitz touting "Don't just get on the Internet; Get into it!" night after night on my television, I finally got curious enough to hit Intel's web site to see just what the P III offered in the way of an improved internet experience. After viewing page after page of vague drivel and irrelevant gibberish I have come to the conclusion that (1) Intel must spend more on marketing than on research and development. (2)That their marketing department are absolute geniuses and (3)There is almost nothing available at this time that makes any use of SSE whatsoever. (Again, sort of reminiscent of MMX)... I realize that, here in the U.S. anyway, we are, for the most part, a flock of idiotic media-herded sheep and I'd hoped we'd have gotten twice shy. But, apparently we're not. Sales of PIII-based systems, though not on the same scale as the MMX blitz, are quite brisk and will no doubt improve after this latest price reduction. Amazing...

Built on the same P6 architecture as the Pentium II, the PIII offers higher frequency operation in general and new streaming SIMD (single instruction on multiple data) extensions referred to as SSE (sort of an MMX ring to it eh?). So, what makes this the next must have processor to hit the mainstream market? We'll take a look at, hopefully, a not too technical depth, to try and determine the relevance of this latest offering from Intel.  Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that the PIII doesn't perform well. The fact is, it really does. What I'm talking about is price/performance ratio. It is in this area where the PIII currently falls short.

Those of you in geekdom, you CADophiles and gamophiles (you know who you are!) that are seriously into getting every available smidgen of performance out of your systems, needn't go any farther. Heck, most of you know more about this stuff than I do. I am addressing this to the mainstream home/office user. For the most part, we have little use for increased CPU performance as the technology has improved so vastly over the last few years, that the bottlenecks in our PC use are found in completely different areas. Yes, we still often sit in front of our monitors waiting for something to happen but, we rarely if ever wait on the CPU anymore. The Internet is a prime example. The current bandwidth available to most users is still 56K and your modem is the culprit here. Believe me, your pages won't load any faster with a PIII than they will with a PII or AMD K6-2 or even Cyrix MII. Yeah, I've heard mention of a new broadband interface but frankly, that could be a year or more away for the mainstream. Other things like loading applications and opening and closing documents can be tedious but again, it's not the CPU at fault here either. Though advances in hard drive technology have come a long way, disk drive accesses and reads are enormously slow when compared with the processors ability to make use of the data. And you would think that a system equipped with PC100 SDRAM would have more than enough memory speed to keep up with even the fastest processors. Actually it can come close but is often retarded by inefficient software and that big ol' resource hog the Windows operating system. Much of today's existing software makes inefficient use of today's larger memory equipped systems and until all of these things come into line there is very little that will be improved by jumping your CPU up to 500MHz - with or without SSE. As this technology advances to make more efficient use of your systems capabilities CPU prices are falling so that waiting to make a top of the line processor purchase just makes good sense.

The Pentium III ships in a slightly different Slot-1 package than the first PIIs in that the chip and L2 cache on the slot-1 pcb aren't completely encased in plastic and this SECC2 package has more efficient cooling properties. 

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PIII 450MHz in place on the EP-BX3 mainboard

If you're not already familiar with the PII, it features an internal 32KB Level 1 cache split evenly between data and instruction set caches, and support for an external, closely-coupled, on-package Level 2 cache operating at 1/2 clock speed.  The Pentium III implements Intel's new Organic Land Grid Array (OLGA) packaging process, a a smaller and more cost efficient package than the standard Plastic Land Grid Array packaging of the Pentium II, which is much larger in comparison.  The Pentium III's L2 cache also running at 1/2 clock speed,  is located within the processor's Slot-1 cartridge in the form of two   -4ns 256KB SRAM modules placed next to the processor's core.  Due to the fact that the speed of the L2 cache is derived from the clock speed of the processor and not the FSB speed as with the AMD K6-2s, PIIIs will offer somewhat linear raw performance increases because a large percentage of system performance is due to a fast L2 cache. 

AMD's K6-III and the Intel CeleronA have their L2 cache on the processor die itself.  This allows the L2 cache to run at the same frequency as the processor itself.  As most of you know, cache is nothing more than high speed memory that is located closer to your CPU for faster access to frequently used data. The first place your CPU goes for data is in the L1 cache. If the data the CPU is looking for cannot be found in the L1 cache, or it fails to retrieve it in the current clock cycle, it looks for it in the L2 cache,  If the data cannot be found there, or retrieved during the current clock cycle, The CPU has to acquire it from the slower system DRAM (although, in the case of the K6-III there is also the availability of a L3 cache on the mainboard itself which operates at the external CPU frequency - most often 100MHz.). This new SECC2 package design is a good idea for all concerned. Intel cuts costs without sacrificing any performance and consumers have a cooler running more efficient processor.

Cause For Controversy???
If you've read anything lately about the PIII processor, then you know the most controversial feature of the  Pentium III is the introduction of the Intel processor serial number. The Intel processor serial number feature is embedded into the chip during the processor's  manufacturing process.  It serves as an identifier for the processor, and, by association, its system. Intel refers to it as being like the serial numbers on many other electronic devices or products, except the Intel processor serial number is implemented electronically, rather than being placed on the exterior of the product.  When enabled, this unique ID could serve as a tracking identifier for you and your computer on the Internet. Intel offers the explanation that the processor serial number is intended to only offer a method of informing users of the rated clock speed of their processor while allowing for greater security during on-line transactions since your unique ID can only be assigned to a single processor, and therefore a unique computer.  Many have expressed concern over online privacy issues but, since the CPU serial number can be rendered inactive through the BIOS, there isn't all that much to worry about.  I have the feeling that the serial number is simply another way for Intel to protect itself against unscrupulous vendor remarking of the processors since the clock multiplier lock has apparently been successfully hacked.

5/13/99 addendum from Wireball:

As a matter of fact, some people have found out a way to read the serial number, even if it's disabled in the BIOS. Here's an excerpt from Ars Technica:

"...Even more interesting is a claim by Zero-Knowledge that they have
discovered a way to access the serial number even if it is disabled in
the BIOS of the PC. Previously Intel had mollified PC manufacturers
worried about privacy issues by saying that disabling the number in the
BIOS would eliminate the security problem. If Zero-Knowledge really has
cracked the BIOS measure, it means there is effectively no way to keep
someone from reading the serial number of the PC. A spokesman for Intel
claimed that all this has been known for months-- this is the first I've
heard of someone grabbing the number even if it's disabled in the BIOS.
I think I'll go re-read 1984; meanwhile, you can read the article here.
-Dr. Evil"

Looks to me like it's impossible to render the serial number unreadable
- people are always going to be able to read it. So therefore, the
plain truth is, if people are worried about serial number tracking, they
shouldn't buy the PIII, despite anything Intel says. Here's the URL to
that serial number article Dr. Evil mentioned:

http://www.infoworld.com/cgi-bin/displayStory.pl?990429.pizero.htm

Performance Issues
I have read several reviews of the PIII processor most of which are quite glowing.   Many of these were benchmarked using software supplied by Intel and this could make one nervous.  While I have no doubts about the capabilities of SSE, the fact remains that there is almost nothing out there that supports it.  Consequently, to get any benefit from the 70 new floating point instructions involved in SSE, purchasing new software will also be necessary.  Like AMD's 3DNow! extensions, SSE is FPU intensive allowing the CPU to process several sets of intricate mathematical data in a single cycle.   This is almost exclusively used in 3D rendering but can also be useful for voice recognition applications as well.  With currently available software this creates a question, at least in my mind, as to whether you see more significant performance increases introducing a new, more powerful graphics card into your system (at a substantially reduced cost) than keeping your old graphics card and simply adding the new PIII.  This is something I intend to investigate a bit later and I'll post my findings when the testing is through.

It took a bit of finagling to get ahold of a PIII to see what they were all about. (People who have already spent the money seem rather sensitive about loaning them out, especially when you bring up overclocking!)  I did however manage to get the use of a PIII 450MHz retail CPU and put it through it's paces albeit on the side of caution. Below are some of the performance marks I recorded...

The Test System:

I ran the Ziff-Davis Winbench and Winstone 99 benchmarking suite against the default 100MHz and 112MHz front side bus speed and the scores posted below are an average over three runs at each setting. All were run at a screen resolution of 1024x768 with the Vsync enabled on the graphics card.

Table of Results

Ziff-Davis' Winbench & Winstone 99 Scores PIII 450MHz PIII 504MHz
Winstone 99/Business Winstone 99:Winstone 99 scores (Winstone units) 23.5 25.2
WinBench 99/Business Graphics WinMark 99 183 205
WinBench 99/Business Disk WinMark 99 (Thousand Bytes/Sec) 2830 3820
WinBench 99/High-End Graphics WinMark 99 476 529
WinBench 99/High-End Disk WinMark 99 (Thousand Bytes/Sec) 9130 9240
WinBench 99/CPUmark 99 34.6 38.7
WinBench 99/FPU WinMark 2300 2570
3D WinBench 99/3D WinMark 687 708

As you can see, the PIII offers great performance marks but, do you want to spend that much money to get them?  All currently available PIII processors will run in virtually all Slot-1 mainboards provided that they have been upgraded to the latest BIOS revision with support for the Pentium III. Ideally the BIOS upgrade should also provide you with the ability to disable the processor serial number. There had been reports that the PIII would require a core voltage of 1.8v but the PIII I tested was rated at 2.0v and was as stable (even at 124MHz x 4.5=560MHz, shhh!) as you can get.

Conclusion
Let's face it, the price for performance has always been high.  On the other hand, there are very few things that drop in price as rapidly as PC processors.  I'm sure that SSE enabled software will start dribbling it's way onto the market very soon, but, it too will probably be costly at first.  I don't know about you but I for one am tired of technical innovations that make too many changes to a platform, requiring a bunch of new hardware or software or both.  From all appearances, AMD's soon to be released K7 will be an absolute screamer of a processor that won't require new software to significantly improve performance.  While the K7 too will hit the market in a pretty costly state, you won't need to buy a new office suite or patch a lot of your existing applications in order to see improvement.  For all intents and purposes, smart money will wait until the end of summer for a high end CPU.  About all you can get from a PIII now is bragging rights.  For that matter bragging rights to the uninformed as many knowledgeable geeks will just think you have more money than sense...


Last Updated on 5/12/99
By MediaTek1

1998/99 2000 MediaTek