June 22, 2006

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Processing ... processing ...
A brief guide to your next computer’s brain
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

If you’ve shopped for a computer recently, you’ve likely noticed the bewildering range of processor options. It used to be easy; you picked up the fastest Pentium you could find and you could be sure your box wouldn’t be obsolete under several days after your neighbor’s box.

No longer. Intel’s competitors had been saying for years that clock speed — megahertz — alone didn’t determine the overall performance of a processor. A couple years ago, Intel admitted, yeah, that’s true. While a banner event for honesty and forthrightness in advertising, that admission now makes some of us geeks sorry for what we wished for. Instead of one or two processors in the marketplace to keep track of, there’s now a whole bunch, and some PCs don’t even list exactly what kind or how fast.

There’s no way to cram a complete computer processor education into one little column, so I offer instead a primer on the processors you’re most likely to run into these days.

• Intel: Still the big dog on the block, Intel supplies the bulk of processors to today’s personal computers. They’ve even conquered the Macintosh after 30 years with their Core Duo line of chips. These processors have, as the name implies, two execution cores for making your multitasking less painful and are available in the swankiest Macs and PCs today. The Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Extreme lines later this year are promised to be even more powerful.

The Pentium M was Intel’s first foray into downplaying clock speed, debuting in the 1.5GHz range when desktop processors were beginning to top 3.0GHz. It shut parts of itself down when not in use to save power, reducing heat and prolonging battery life in laptops. This technique was later built into the Core line. The Pentium M is often branded as Centrino in laptops that have integrated wireless capability.

You’ll still see old brand names Pentium and Celeron kicking around in lower-priced computers. Suffice to say that Celeron is still the runt of the litter, but for the proverbial grandma checking e-mail, either is just fine.

• AMD: Ahh, plucky little AMD. They’ve kept Intel on their toes all these years, with cheap processors that equalled or exceeded the performance of their rival’s. They’re still at it, with a (slightly) less opaque naming scheme to boot.

Shoppers seeking a value proposition (a.k.a. cheap bastards) will want to look at a Sempron chip. It has a smaller cache — onboard memory — than AMD’s other models, so even chips with a high clock speed don’t communicate as briskly with the rest of the computer. Mobile versions incorporate the same kind of power-saving technology as in Intel’s Pentium M and Core lines.

AMD’s most mature current processor is the Athlon 64 line. It has roots way back in the 800MHz days and comes in dual core and multimedia tweaked versions. The 64 refers to its 64-bit capability. What does that mean? Not a lot until 64-bit operating systems are more prevalent. There are high-end versions of Windows and Linux like that, but otherwise, PC operating systems are largely 32-bit these days.
For mobile users, the Turion 64 is AMD’s top of the line. The X2 version has dual cores.


Comments? Thoughts? Discuss these articles and more at hippoflea.com

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