Christmas Buying Guides--CPUs, Part One

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There Is No One Best System

Everyone has different needs. Everyone has different-sized wallets. Everyone has different levels of risk-taking.

So what I’m going to do here is not give you one choice, but a range of choices, based on those different levels.

The World Has Changed

Joe and I went to a computer show last weekend, and one vendor Joe knows well pretty much summarized the change. He said something like:

“It’s a lot different now. Last year, I was selling 85-90% Intel. Now it’s like 60-40 AMD.”

Over the past few months, going to those computer shows, I can certainly testify that AMD is at least on equal footing with Intel nowadays at these shows. These guys wouldn’t be giving AMD equal
or more time if people weren’t buying them, and it’s not just the people looking for cheapy computers anymore; there are plenty of 1Ghz and 1.1Ghz TBirds for sale.

Anybody buying a new computer or making a major upgrade today has to at least seriously consider AMD.

Competition lowers prices

I’ve talked about AMD’s pricing before, but not its impact on Intel. Since the introduction of the Celeron, Intel has tended to stop production of chips once they got down to the $190 (in the US) price point.

No more.

You can buy a PIII 700, for instance, for about $160-170 nowadays from places with a good resellerratings.com rating. A PIII 650 for roughly $150. While they’re still priced a lot above its AMD competition; they’re a good deal lower
than equivalent chips were six months ago.

The same is true for Celerons; you can buy the top rated Celeron available for a good deal less than $100.

To DDR or Not To DDR

If you decide on Intel, there’s no particular reason to wait for DDR. You’ll only get a slight improvement since the FSB won’t budge in the first generation boards, and those that will take advantage won’t be around until late next spring.

AMD is a different story.

It’s November 21, five weeks from Christmas. We have a grand total of one stick of DDR, that’s an engineering sample, and it was interesting buying that. Getting a second may be even more interesting. Only one place has even been offering
engineering samples for sale to developers every once in a while.

Now I could be wrong, but I really don’t think we’re going to get flooded with DDR for sale in the next couple weeks.

Then you have to have to get a motherboard to stick your new prized possession in. Again, five weeks before Christmas. No production boards ready quite yet. Not too likely we’ll be flooded with them in the next couple, either.

Nor does it help a lot that AMD’s updated Palomino will get announced at the end of the year, but won’t be generally available until some time in the next quarter of next year.

I don’t doubt a few places might have the memory just before Christmas, and a few more places will have the first motherboards (just noticed Advanced Design of Kentucky is taking preorders of the IWill DDR board), but you might have to imitate Arnold in “Jingle All The Way” to get it all: “Many geeks, Few toys, No Prisoners.”

If you don’t want to have that kind of memorable Christmas, and you can at all wait, wait.

If not, you will either have a merchandizing adventure, or you’ll end up with current technology.

I Have to Hit One Gig!!

If you absolutely, positively, this-will-ruin-your-Christmas-if-you-don’t-reach-it have to hit 1Ghz; just go out and buy a 1Ghz TBird. They aren’t that expensive.

If just a high likelihood would satisfy you, you may want to look at some of the “guaranteed” processors and combinations.

Why Did You Put “Guaranteed” in Quotes?

Two reasons:

1) All these folks will guarantee is that they got the processor to run at the speed on their setup. They can’t and don’t guarantee it will hit that speed on your setup, simply because they have no idea what your setup is.

The more of your system you buy from them, the more likely it is to work at that speed. For instance, if you buy a combination CPU/motherboard/RAM, that’s most of the working components of your system, and is a better indicator of success than just buying a processor.

But not all. If you overclock the FSB bus to reach your desired speed (likely with PIII/Celeron combos), your hard drive or PCI cards might stop that.

If you’re not doing that, but only have a 200 or 235W power supply, you may well run into some power supply problems if you have a Duron/TBird combo.

I’m not trying to scare you out of buying one. Just understand that you need to take care of the parts of the system you don’t buy from them, too.

This becomes even more true if you just buy the processor. That’s true even if you have “good equipment.” Merchants who sell these things tell me they can take a Processor A, run it on mobos A and B, and it will run faster on mobo A. They then can take processor B, run it on the two mobos, and mobo B will be faster.

2) Some test more than others

Before buying any “guaranteed” combo or system, find out just how they tested. There seems to be quite a bit of difference between how different places test. Some burn their system in for 12-24 hours running all kinds of tests. Others do as little as run one test for fifteen minutes, subtract 50Mhz from the speed tested, and that’s that.

Some tests are better than others. This is especially important to gamers, because I’ve seen many, many people say they have processors that run Windows programs fine at X speed, but chokes quickly using 3DMark or their game of choice.

Many, many people have done wonderfully well with pretested systems. Just understand what that guarantee really is and make sure you buy from someone who extensively tests, even if they charge a bit more than some others who don’t test as much.

I Want To Do This On My Own

That’s fine, but “on my own” may mean more work than you had in mind, and if it’s “1Ghz or Bust,” it may be riskier than you would like.

Right now, I don’t feel comfortable pointing to any processor out there that isn’t rated 1Ghz and saying, “overclocking to 1Ghz is close to a lock.”

A lot of them will, no doubt about that. If this were 900-950 Mhz rather than 1Ghz, I’d feel very comfortable about a number of chips doing that the vast majority of the time. But not 1Ghz.

Not a Duron, not a PIII (even a cC0 PIII), not a Celeron (even a cC0 Celeron).

For the PIIIs, here’s a comment I got from someone in the business of selling these:

We have been playing with the cCO stepping a little more
often lately. They seem to be somewhat better but not a
great deal than the cBO stepping. We are still hovering
around the 1 Gig mark. We have had several that would only do
700@933MHz and 800@ 944Mhz; then again we
have had 700@ 1008 and 800@1066MHz woohoo! We have had a few that
would barely get above 900.

So although they seem better; it’s no miracle chip. Maybe we are just really tough in our testing.
We had 2 800@1066 out of 10, one very stable, one fairly stable.

I’ve gotten reports from other vendors indicating that they gotten shipments of cC0 Celerons that wouldn’t
do 1Ghz, either.

Durons? No direct vendor reports, and I know Joe got a Duron 800 stable at a 1Ghz, but we don’t have
enough statistical data yet to give it a near-lock. For the lower speeds, it looks like the percentage that
will hit 1Ghz is increasing, but again, it’s not a near-certainty. What’s a near-certainty is that you’ll get
at least 900Mhz out of a late week. Very good shot at 950Mhz. You may hit 1Ghz with a late week.

TBirds? The aluminum ones may or may not. The Dresden chips are as close to a lock as exists, but again, I’ve had a vendor tell me of shipments
that wouldn’t.

Don’t Trust, Verify

I’ll tell you what I’d do to maximize my chances at 1Ghz, though.

If it’s a TBird, I want a Dresden chip. If it’s a Duron, I want a late week. If it’s a PIII or
Celeron, I want a cC0. There’s only one way to make sure about any of these.

See it before you buy it. That means going to a computer store or computer fair and looking at CPUs.

If you say “But I don’t want to do that” or “I can get it cheaper over the Internet,” then you’re not serious about reaching 1Ghz.

There’s a LOT of older AMD stock floating around; I’m still seeing June chips floating around. The cC0s are pretty new. You
order over the Internet, you’re taking a chance of not getting what you want. Maybe you win, maybe you don’t.

It’s your money, and wishes. I’d rather do whatever I can to put the odds in my favor.

Tomorrow, specific recommendations for Christmas buying.

Email Ed


As I indicated in Part One, there’s no good reason to wait until after Christmas for Intel products,
but there is for AMD products (i.e., DDR memory and motherboards). Just a few more words on AMD.

Mobo Half-Way Houses

Current SDRAM doesn’t fit in DDR slots. Current SDRAM is 168 pins wide; the DDR coming out is 184-pins. So
you can’t use DDR on your current mobo, and your current RAM won’t fit in a DDR memory slot.

A few manufacturers look like they’re going to offer products to ease you through the DDR transition period.
Either they are offering a couple DDR and a couple SDRAM slots each, and let you use one or the other, or
coming up with 184 pin versions of SDRAM that will fit in a DDR slot.

The latter doesn’t make any sense to me; if you have to fill a 184-pin slot, you might as well buy DDR. I suppose the former does (if the mobos prove to be OK), if you don’t
ever plan on using more than two DDR slots down the road, and don’t use more than two SDRAM slots now.

We’re getting to the point where 256Mb is starting to look like a good idea for most people. I’ve been using 384Mb
lately, and have actually gotten “out-of-resources” messages.

Having said that, if it’s a choice between buying a hybrid board or an SDRAM only board; the first would be better, but if it’s a matter of
buying a hybrid or just waiting a bit, I’d do the latter if at all possible.

The Angst for 1Ghz

As I’ve mentioned in part one, many processors today give you a reasonable shot at 1Ghz, but it’s not a really sure thing.

The drive to 1Ghz is strong. I get it in the emails, resellers tell me about it.

What I can’t tell from the emails is your tolerance of failure; how important 1Ghz really is. This isn’t a sure thing, and a lot of you want 1Ghz AND a sure thing, and I can’t honestly say it is.

So if I’m hypercautious, it’s for those folks who want a sure thing. Attempting to reach 1Ghz with many of these processors isn’t foolhardy, just understand that you might not make it. If not making it is no big deal, go for it. If not making it
would be a major tragedy, you might want to wait a bit.

Different Strokes For Different Folks

What I’ve done is break up the audience into three categories:

“Cheaper is Better Than Faster” These folks want maximum bang for the buck. When push comes to shove, saving money is more important.

“Faster is Better Than Cheaper” These folks want maximum bang (within a reasonable buck). When push comes to shove, they’ll spend a little more money for a little more bang.

“I’m Neither” These folks are cheap, but not hardcore cheap. When push comes to shove, they want the best middle-of-the-road choice.

I’ve also addressed two factors within each of these categories:

“I Will/Will Not Overclock” These might be treasonous in some eyes, but understand that if you have to build a system for Grandma, she might not be as enthusiastic about overclocking as you are.
If Grandma remains unconvinced of the joys of overclocking, it would be wise to know what to get under those circumstances.

“I Won’t/Can’t Consider AMD” Personally, I think you’re better off with AMD right now. However, this is not a universally held opinion, and you can’t exact slap an injunction on somebody not to buy an Intel system.

Besides, if a person is simply looking to upgrade his or her processor in a current Intel system, it is not insane to believe that replacing the current Intel-based mobo isn’t worth the additional cost and effort.

“Cheaper is Better Than Faster”

I Will Overclock–Duron 650/700Mhz These chips are going for dirt cheap; without a heatsink/fan, expect to pay no more than $65. I didn’t list the Duron 600 because they stopped
manufacturing a while back, earlier weeks probably won’t overclock quite as much, and besides, there’s little to no cost difference between the 600 and 650. You can realistically expect 900-950Mhz from this chip, and you may get more.

I Will Not Overclock–Duron 700-800Mhz The 750 is about $15 more than the 700, an 800 is about $25 more than the 750. A 700 or 750 offer the best combination of low price and good power. The 800 is a little less so, but it’s hardly throwing money out into the street.

I Can’t Consider AMD, I Will Overclock–cC0 600-667Mhz Celeron The Duron is a better chip. However, if you have a current Intel-based system, the Celeron is a cheaper upgrade.

One big warning about the Celeron, though. These often require more voltage to reach overclocking speeds than your motherboard is likely to give them. While there are tricks to get around that, they involve soldering or very delicate wrapping of wires around CPU pins, which may well not be your cup of tea.

This is especially true of cB0 Celerons, which have an official voltage of 1.5V. cC0 Celerons have You should
research how people are doing with Celerons on your motherboard by checking Deja and type in something like [your mobo’s model number] [Celeron 6XX]. Doing this will tell you what people in newsgroups are reporting about their attempts.

Going to Deja is a good idea before you make any hardware purchase of an item that’s been out for a while.

You should also check the website of the manufacturer of your motherboard (especially if you have an older BX board) to make sure the motherboard supports the CPU. If the motherboard supports Coppermines, it probably will work with Celerons, too, even if Celerons aren’t officially supported, but make sure somebody else has managed the feat by looking at Deja.

Which one should you buy? Cost isn’t a big factor here. How far the chip is likely to go is.

If 900Mhz will satisfy your minimum goals, buy a 600Mhz cC0 Celeron, and you should be able to hit 900Mhz with no problems. You’ll be very unlucky if you do.

If you are hellbent on 1Ghz, then you might have some problems. Seems simple enough to buy a 667Mhz and just run it at 1Ghz, but what do you do if the processor won’t do that?

When you put together a new system, you don’t know two things:

  • You don’t know how far your processor will go.
  • You don’t know how far your components may overclock if you overclock the PCI bus.

    The most prudent way to approach this is to have a reasonable fallback position so you can still get a reasonable overclock even if you have lousy luck.

    The best way to do that for a Celeron is to get a motherboard that supports a 90Mhz/30Mhz bus speed, or otherwise lets you choose a PCI divisor of /3 at speeds of less than 100Mhz. Let me explain what it is and why it’s important.

    Your hard drives along with anything that plugs into your PCI slots are designed to run at a speed of 33Mhz. To provide that clock speed, most motherboards divide the motherboard clock speed by a number.

    At 66Mhz, most motherboards will automatically divide that number by 2, so you get 66/2= 33Mhz. At 100Mhz, most motherboards will automatically divide that number by 3, so you get 100/3= 33Mhz.

    The ideal overclocking situation for a Celeron is to jump from 66Mhz to 100Mhz FSB successfully. That way, the only thing you’re overclocking is the processor itself. All your other devices will run at normal speed.

    If you run the PCI devices at more than 33Mhz, what you are doing is not only overclocking the CPU, but overclocking the hard drives and PCI devices, too. On the whole, they are much less tolerant of that than the CPU is.

    However, remember what that reseller said in part one; there’s some cC0 Celerons that won’t do 1Ghz. If that’s the case, then the next fallback for many motherboards is 83Mhz/41Mhz.

    If the motherboard supports a 90Mhz/30Mhz bus speed, you still get about 35% overclock, and actually run your other devices a bit slower than regular speed. Just about any Celeron should be able to do that.

    However, many motherboards only support a 83Mhz/41Mhz bus speed, which means that at that speed, the motherboard doesn’t divide the motherboard speed by 3, but by 2. What that means is that you’ll be running those hard drives and PCI devices not at 33Mhz, but at 41Mhz. A lot of them don’t like that, and won’t work when you do that.

    Should that happen to you, the next fallback is 75Mhz/38Mhz, and while you’ll probably be able to do that, you don’t have much of an overclock at that speed.

    So this may sound like some esoteric little item only a hardware freak would love, it can easily make the difference between the system overclocking a lot or hardly at all. So find out, and if you can’t figure it out, ask.

    I Already Have A Overclocked System

    In your case, you have a much better idea of what the system can do. You still don’t know what the processor can do, but if you can run at 112Mhz or better now, you can feel pretty safe your other components won’t stop you when you stick in a new CPU.

    So What Should I Do?

    If you have a tried-and-true system that can run at 112Mhz or more, buy the 600Mhz.

    For anybody else, it really depends on how lucky you feel and how driven you are to 1Ghz.

    If you’re conservative, buy the 600, expect to get 900 unless you’re really unlucky, and consider anything above that gravy.

    If you’re willing to gamble a little on a new system, I would buy the 600 and bet you can reach 112Mhz. Unless you have an especially stubborn device that doesn’t want to be overclocked at all (and SCSI devices, network cards, and Maxtor hard drives have a reputation for that), the other parts of your system probably won’t stop you.

    If you know, or are pretty sure you can’t run 112Mhz or better, and you’re willing to gamble a bit, go for the 633 or 667.

    What you should not do (unless you’re looking at Peltier cooling) is buy an 700 or better and expect to easily overclock it 50%. That looks pretty unlikely.

    I Can’t Consider AMD, I Won’t Overclock–Celeron 700 It’s not much more expensive than the other Celerons, but it’s a good deal less expensive than any PIII, so it gets the nod.


    “Faster is Better Than Cheaper”

    I Will Overclock–TBird 1Ghz The chip goes for less than $300, and preliminary indications from our database indicate that 1.2Ghz is not an unreasonable goal for a late model (look for the code AVFA on the second line of the CPU). Besides, you’re guaranteed the 1Ghz Holy Grail.

    I Will Not Overclock–TBird 1Ghz/1.1Ghz The 1.1Ghz is about $100 more than the 1Ghz, but that shouldn’t be too bad for people willing to spend a bit extra.

    I Can’t Consider AMD, I Will Overclock–cC0 Pentium III 700/750. Even if you’re willing to spend more, it’s not going to do you any good. Faster chips will actually leave you in a worse overclocking position; they’re a waste of money if you’re going to overclock.

    Having said that, you got a little thinking to do.

    (If the following looks just like what I said about Celerons, it is. Just the names and numbers change, same principles.)

    If you are putting together a new system, you don’t know two things:

  • You don’t know how far your processor will go
  • You don’t know how far your components may overclock if you overclock the PCI bus.

    The most prudent way to approach this is to have a reasonable fallback position so you can still get a reasonable overclock even if you have lousy luck.

    The best way to do that is to get a motherboard that supports a 124Mhz/31Mhz bus speed, or otherwise lets you choose a PCI divisor of /4 at speeds of less than 100Mhz.. Let me explain what it is and why it’s important.

    Your hard drives along with anything that plugs into your PCI slots are designed to run at a speed of 33Mhz. To provide that clock speed, most motherboards divide the motherboard clock speed by a number.

    At 100Mhz, most motherboards will automatically divide that number by 3, so you get 100/3= 33Mhz. At 133Mhz, the most motherboards will automatically divide that number by 4, so you get 133/4= 33Mhz. (The chips in all current motherboards cannot divide by more than /4).

    The ideal overclocking situation for a PIII is to jump from 100Mhz to 133Mhz FSB successfully. That way, the only thing you’re overclocking is the processor itself. All your other devices will run at normal speed.

    If you run the PCI devices at more than 33Mhz, what you are doing is not only overclocking the CPU, but overclocking the hard drives and PCI devices, too. On the whole, they are much less tolerant of that than the CPU is.

    However, remember what that reseller said in part one; there’s a few PIIIs out there that don’t like 933Mhz. If that’s the case, then the next fallback for many people is 124Mhz.

    If the motherboard supports a 124Mhz/31Mhz bus speed, you get a 24% overclock, and actually run your other devices a bit slower than regular speed. Just about any PIII should be able to do that.

    However, many motherboards only support a 124Mhz/41Mhz bus speed, which means that at that speed, the motherboard doesn’t divide the motherboard speed by 4, but by 3. What that means is that you’ll be running those hard drives and PCI devices not at 33Mhz, but at 41Mhz. A lot of them don’t like that, and won’t work when you do that.

    So this may sound like some esoteric little item only a hardware freak would love, but it can easily make the difference between the system working or not. So find out, and if you can’t figure it out, ask.

    I Already Have A Overclocked System

    In your case, you have a much better idea of what the system can do. You still don’t know what the processor can do, but if you can run at 150Mhz now, you can feel pretty safe your other components won’t stop you when you stick in a new CPU.

    So What Should I Do?

    If you have a tried-and-true system that can run at 145Mhz or more, buy the 700Mhz.

    For anybody else, it really depends on how lucky you feel and how driven you are to 1Ghz.

    If you’re conservative, buy the 700, expect to get 933 unless you’re really unlucky, and consider anything above that gravy.

    If you’re willing to gamble a bit, I think the better gamble is to buy the 700 and gamble you can reach 143Mhz. Unless you have an especially stubborn device that doesn’t want to be overclocked at all (and SCSI devices, network cards, and Maxtor hard drives have a reputation for that), you probably will be OK.

    If you know, or are pretty sure you can’t run 143Mhz or better, go for the 750.

    What you should not do (unless you’re looking at Peltier cooling) is buy an 800E or greater and expect to easily overclock it 33%. Most won’t.

    I Can’t Consider AMD–I Won’t Overclock– PIII 866/933/1Ghz EB EB chips are bad for overclocking, but if you’re not going to, the increased motherboard speed they run at (133Mhz) make them a little better than 100Mhz E chips.

    Expect to pay around $250 for an 866EB, about $350 for a 933Mhz, and about $500 for 1Ghz. I personally think anything more than an 866 is a waste of money, but then again, you aren’t wasting mine. Just know that you’re paying a stiff tax for Intel allegiance.


    “I’m Neither”

    I Will Overclock–Dresden TBird 750-900Mhz If you want to do this, you have to look at the chips. You order from the Internet, you probably get an aluminum TBird, and you may well not get 1Ghz out of it. Get a Dresden chip, and you’re pretty likely to get
    1100Mhz. The chips themselves should look more blue. For additional verification, look at the four letter codes on the beginning of the second line of codes on the Athlon: AEEA, AHEA, ADFA, AVFA are Dresden codes. You’ll probably find the earlier codes for the earlier weeks, the later are probably better (especially AVFA).

    I Will Not Overclock–TBird 900Ghz/950/1Ghz The 900Mhz, at about $180, is the best mid-range bang for the buck. On the other hand, there are substantial numbers of aluminum 900s out there, relatively few aluminum 950s, and no aluminum 1Ghz. That should tell you something about what is preferable.

    I Can’t Consider AMD, I Will Overclock–Pentium III 700/750 See the discussion in the previous section above.

    I Can’t Consider AMD, I Won’t Overclock–Pentium III 800EB About $180, best bang for the buck in the Intel series if you’re not overclocking.

    Friday, motherboard recommendations for Christmas buying.

    Email Ed


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