Chip Shot


Q: Last week you mentioned a class-action lawsuit aginst Toshiba, over too-hot laptops. Have you heard about the class-action suit against Intel? The plaintiffs are saying the company lied about the Pentium 4’s performance. What’s the deal? Should I join in?

Well, let Mr. Roboto put it this way: If you’re counting on Neubauer et al. v. Intel et al. as your ticket to innumerable gold chains and pinky rings, you could use a nice, cold splash of water to the face. The lawsuit, filed in Madison County, Illinois, in June of 2002, alleges that “there is no benefit to consumers of choosing the Pentium 4 over the Pentium III,” and that the P4 is inferior to AMD’s rival Athlon microprocessor, too. While there’s a grain of truth to the complaint, in that the first P4s weren’t quite as revolutionary as advertised, Intel’s tech-savvy lawyers can probably make mincemeat of the plaintiffs’ argument if the case ever goes to trial.

The crux of the plaintiffs’ case seems to be that, if you break it down to work done per megahertz, the PIII is a better performer than its successor. While that may be true, this line of reasoning ignores the fact that P4 machines run at much higher clock speeds than PIIIs. It’s no big whoop nowadays to buy a sub-$900, P4 desktop that clocks in at 3.06 gigahertz. The PIII, by contrast, never even broke the 2 GHz barrier.

The other thing to keep in mind is that a microprocessor’s muscle is only part of the equation. There’s also the matter of how well it meshes with supporting technologies, like the firmware that powers your hard drive. As third-party vendors have adjusted to the P4, it’s started to perform much better in laboratory tests.

Also, the P4 includes “hyperthreading technology,” Intel’s fancy-shmancy phrase for enabling different parts of the chip to be active simultaneously. That means the P4’s a lot better when you’re running, say, Photoshop and e-mail.

Now, don’t think for a second that Mr. Roboto’s only defending Intel because he’s down with the Man. The plaintiffs are correct in their grumbling about the P4’s early days, when companies like Gateway and HP (co-defendants in the Neubauer case) were charging a premium for PCs featuring the newfangled chip. Mr. Roboto feels your pain if you paid an extra $400 for a 1.6 GHz P4 machine, circa July 2001, instead of a just-as-good 1.2 GHz PIII. You should always be wary of new chips, as it takes a while for the hardware to catch up, and for kinks to be worked out. That advice goes doubly for bargain hunters: Mr. Roboto’s golden rule of budget computer shopping remains, Always buy one generation behind.

Still, the feeling here is that Neubauer isn’t going to provide the consumer windfall that the plaintiffs—or, rather, the plaintiffs’ lawyers—are hoping for. Proving a certain chip is inferior to another chip is something best left to benchmarking tests, and those tests have proven that the P4 is, indeed, an improvement over the long haul. Rather than filling out the Neubauer form at, you can probably spend your time on a more fruitful pursuit. Like sending Mr. Roboto a dollar.

How-to: SpyBot

Frequent visitors to this space are familiar with Mr. Roboto’s love for SpyBot (, the best free spyware-removal tool on the planet. But some readers have complained that SpyBot can freeze up when downloading updates. And, of course, a SpyBot without updates isn’t really all that useful, seeing as how the evil spyware folks are always coming up with new ploys. Nine times out of ten, the culprit that causes the crashes is your firewall; the free version of Zone Alarm (another Mr. Roboto fave) seems to present particular problems. The advice here is to shut down your third-party firewall during the updating process. If you’ve got Windows XP, activate the built-in firewall instead by going to Network Connections, right-clicking on your Internet hookup, clicking Properties, then the Advanced tab.

Uh, Dr. Roboto?

Sure, you love Mr. Roboto’s icy wit and competent prose, but would you want him checking up on you after getting your gall bladder removed? “Yes,” says a new study from Johns Hopkins University, which studied patient responses to a robotic doctor. A real doctor, ensconced elsewhere, controlled the wheeled ‘bot with a joystick, and viewed the patients through the unit’s camera-outfitted eyes. Don’t worry, the roboto wasn’t used for any slicing and dicing—yet.