Most people spend too much time dithering about which processor to install. There are really only two choices you need to make: first, Intel versus AMD, and second, how much you should spend. Here are the considerations for each of the processor price ranges:
Low end (under $150)
At the bottom of this range—sub-$100 processors—inexpensive Athlon XP models simply mop the floor with comparably priced Celerons. At the upper end of this range are the least expensive processors that we consider mainstream models—the fastest Celerons, fast Athlon XPs, and the slowest Pentium 4s. Around the $150 mark, Intel begins to achieve performance parity, or nearly so.
Midrange ($150 to $250)
This is the mainstream. The bottom half of this range includes the fastest Athlon XPs and the midrange Pentium 4s, any of which are good choices for a mainstream system. At the upper end of this range are fast Pentium 4s and Athlon 64s. Midrange processors as a group are generally noticeably faster than low-end processors and cost only a little more, while at the same time being only a bit slower than high-end processors and costing a lot less.
High end ($250+)
At the lower end, this range is the realm of the fastest Pentium 4 and Athlon 64 processors. At the high end—which may approach or exceed $1,000—you’ll find the Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition and the Athlon 64 FX. This range is characterized by a rapidly decreasing bang-for-the-buck ratio. A $150 processor might be 50% faster than a $75 processor, but a $400 processor may be only 10% faster than a $200 processor, and a $1,000 processor only 5% faster than a $400 one.
Also consider the following issues when you choose a processor:
Even the slowest current processor more than suffices for office productivity applications. If you never load the system heavily, you won’t notice much difference between an inexpensive processor and a more expensive model.
Low-end processors are hampered by small secondary caches. These cripple performance, particularly if you work with large data sets, such as multimedia, graphics, or video.
In the midrange and high-end segments, Intel processors cost more than AMD processors with comparable performance. However, Athlon 64 motherboards usually cost more than comparable Pentium 4 motherboards and often have fewer features, so the overall cost for comparable AMD and Intel systems is usually quite close.
Processors in the “sweet spot” range—$150 to $200 for a retail-boxed processor—usually represent the best bang for the buck.
Buy the processor you need initially, rather than buying a slower processor now and planning to upgrade later. Processor upgrades, AMD and Intel, are a minefield of compatibility issues.
Processor When price is a high priority, we recommend the fastest retail-boxed AMD Athlon XP you can find for $75 to $100. For midrange systems, choose the fastest retail-boxed Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon 64 you can find for $185 or so. If multimedia/AV is important to you, choose the Pentium 4. If gaming is your priority, choose the Athlon 64. If you need the fastest possible processor and are willing to pay the price, choose the Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition or the AMD Athlon 64 FX.
Dollar for dollar, the Intel Celeron simply cannot compare to the AMD Athlon XP, and we see no reason to ever use one.
The New Celerons
As we went to press, Intel began shipping a new series of Celerons, the so-called “Celeron D” processors, which are based on the Prescott-core Pentium 4. We didn’t expect much from these new Celerons, but we were wrong. Intel turned the tables on AMD. The Celeron D is fully competitive in price and performance with inexpensive Athlon XP models. On that basis, we withdraw our blanket condemnation of the Celeron. If you do buy a Celeron, though, make certain it’s a D model. Celerons based on the older Northwood core are still dogs.
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