Battle Chips


Q: I’m looking to buy the family a new PC for Christmas, and I’m right flummoxed by all the microchips out there. Pentiums, Celerons, Athlons, Durons—sounds like damn Greek mythology. And I’m awful at Greek mythology. Can you sort it all out?

The chip pantheon can be confusing, indeed, especially if you’re shopping for a bargain. Lesson numero uno is that the market’s dominated by Intel, with Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) playing second fiddle. Geeks are forever arguing over which company turns out the better high-end chips, a debate that’s a total bore for 99 percent of users. If you’re looking for value, though, AMD’s chips have it going on—if you can locate a machine that uses one.

Before Mr. Roboto parses out those pesky names, let’s break down how chip performance gets measured. It all starts with clock speed, a number expressed in megahertz or gigahertz. The faster the clock speed, the better the performance, or so the conventional wisdom goes. (The wisdom’s misguided, but we’ll hit that later.) Then there’s “L2 cache,” or high-speed memory. Finally, you’ve got “frontside bus,” a figure that reveals how adroitly the processor connects to the RAM. The higher the cache and frontside bus numbers, the more muscular the chip.

Pentiums are Intel’s bread-and-butter, and the chips wind up in the vast majority of premium PCs. If you come across a new machine costing more than $1,000, odds are it’s got a Pentium 4. For the budget market, Intel offers the Celeron, which is basically a stripped-down version. Intel’s architects took a Pentium 4 and knocked off three-quarters of the L2 cache and several hundred megahertz worth of frontside bus. The result is a chip that wholesales for about half of a Pentium. You know those superstore cheapies that are moving for under $500 this holiday season? Lots of ’em run Celerons.

The AMD chip names are even harder to keep straight. The flagship brand is the Athlon, which ranges from super-fast to ho-hum. The best Athlons are worthy rivals to top-shelf Pentiums, while lower-end Athlon XPs compete with the Celeron. There’s also the budget Duron, which is being phased out. Oh, and the newest Athlon XPs are sometimes referred to as Bartons. Got that? Good, good.

PC geeks enjoy few pastimes more than a good Athlon-versus-Pentium debate. The gross generalization is that Athlons are ideal for hardcore gamers, while Pentiums are better at running multiple office applications without crashing. Unless you’re a serious computer grind, Athlon-versus-Pentium shouldn’t keep you up nights.

Fret instead about the Celeron-versus- Athlon XP throwdown. Lots of computer shoppers are suckered by the “Intel Inside” sticker, and figure Celerons are just a notch below Pentiums on the quality spectrum. Uh, nope. Celerons are total weaklings, and regularly get outperformed by Athlon cheapies in lab tests. The indispensable site recently tested a raft of Athlons and Celerons, and the former won by a long shot, especially for graphics-intensive games like Halo. This despite the fact that the Celerons advertise higher clock speeds—see, there’s that conventional wisdom falling by the wayside.

If you’re only going to be browsing the Web and pounding out Word documents, a Celeron should meet your needs all right. But if you’re planning on doing anything that’ll tax your video or sound cards, eschew the Celeron in favor of an Athlon XP. The one stumbling block is that machines running AMD chips are a bit tougher to find than Pentium-based PCs. HP is the brand that uses Athlons the most in its “value” line, so keep an eye peeled. No, the keyboards don’t have those snazzy “Intel Inside” stickers, but somehow you’ll manage.

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