Choosing a Budget CPU: 24 Value Processors from Intel and AMD in Our Lab

In this article we will focus on the performance of 24 Value processors, which have unfortunately become pretty rare guests in our reviews and roundups lately. Also we will try to find out what low-cost processor solutions from AMD and Intel appear the best purchase for the end-users today. Find out the best CPU you can get for the least money with the help of our extensive detailed coverage!

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
05/15/2004 | 12:44 PM

The CPU section of our site is mostly filled with reviews of the topmost processors of the moment, but you shouldn’t be misled to think that such products are the most popular in the market. Our exploration of the fastest CPUs available is interesting in the first hand because it gives us insights into newest technologies in the processor-making field. As for using such devices, which are extreme in two respects – performance and price, few people, mostly hardcore gamers, do buy and install them into their systems. An overwhelming majority of users prefer cheaper and slower processors and are quite satisfied with their choice as they get the most optimal price/performance ratio.

 

That’s why our today’s article is not about another modification of a high-end processor, but rather about low things. Quantitatively, processors for computer systems costing up to $700 are the real rulers of the market. In this review, we will focus on cheap processors which are seldom the heroes of reviews or tests. We will also try to find out which current offers from AMD and Intel are most profitable for the end-user. Cheap processors are based around well- and long-known architectures and don’t supports any new unexplored-yet technologies, so we’ll spend just a little time to describe them and then go right to benchmarks and overclocking matters. As you know, overclocking is often a rewarding way of increasing the performance of a value processor.

So let’s see the participants getting ready for the tests.

Testing Participants

So what processors should be regarded as belonging to the value product category? It’s simple because the CPU manufacturers themselves try to shove their produce into sharply-outlined price niches. I mean Intel in the first hand, which offers an independent processor family, Celeron, for value computer systems. Models of this family have been priced up to $120 for the last several years, so I guess we can set this mark as a limit of what a value processor should cost. This means that we’re interested in the whole Celeron family today. On the Intel side, we should also include a few obsolete Pentium 4 models – Intel has long abandoned producing them, but you can still meet one in a computer shop at a very modest price. The AMD camp will be represented by models of the Athlon XP series in our today’s tests. After the release of the Athlon 64 family, whose members are now positioned both as high-end and mainstream solutions, the manufacturer cut down the Athlon XP prices dramatically. So the Athlon XP was originally targeted at the same niche as the Pentium 4, but now this family is a direct competitor to the Celeron.

Intel Celeron. Processors of the Intel Celeron family are based around the same micro-architecture as the Pentium 4, but Intel reduces their L2 cache memory amount in two to give them the status of a value product. Thus, Celerons have 128KB of L2 cache until today, although current Pentium 4 models have 512 or 1024KB of L2 cache! Besides that, Celerons use a slower system bus clocked at 400MHz (against the 800MHz FSB of the relatively new Pentium 4 models), which limits the processor-memory bandwidth to 3.2GB/s in Celeron-based systems. Then, Celerons don’t have Hyper-Threading and their maximum clock rate is 2.8GHz. In this article, you’ll see all Celeron models for the Socket 478 platform. Here’s a full list:

Frequency, GHz

Processor core

Bus frequency, MHz

L2 cache size, KB

1.7

Willamette-128

400

128

1.8

Willamette-128

400

128

2.0

Northwood-128

400

128

2.1

Northwood-128

400

128

2.2

Northwood-128

400

128

2.3

Northwood-128

400

128

2.4

Northwood-128

400

128

2.5

Northwood-128

400

128

2.6

Northwood-128

400

128

2.7

Northwood-128

400

128

2.8

Northwood-128

400

128

Intel Pentium 4. As I mentioned above, only junior Pentium 4 models, long abandoned by the manufacturer, can be classified as value products. Anyway, you can still see processors like a Pentium 4 1.8A in shops. This model is based on the 0.18-micron Northwood core, works with the 400MHz FSB and doesn’t support Hyper-Threading, just like Celerons. Unlike Celerons, however, it is equipped with 512KB of L2 cache. The price of such a model will be like that of a 2.8GHz Celeron. Besides the Pentium 4 1.8A we included a handful of Pentiums 4 with 2.4GHz frequency. The price of the Northwood-core Pentium 4 2.4B (533MHz FSB and 512KB L2 cache) has now dropped to $130, which is just above the ceiling for the Celerons. Besides that, we have a Prescott-core Pentium 4 2.4A with 1MB L2 cache and 533MHz FSB and a Pentium 4 2.4C with 512KB L2 cache, the 800MHz FSB and Hyper-Threading. Although these two processors don’t fit into the price category we are interested in, I guess they’ll serve well as reference points. Moreover, they may be prospective offers in the near future after inevitable price cuts.

AMD Athlon XP. AMD’s launching the Athlon 64 series has played into the hands of money-tight users. The manufacturer started aggressively promoting the new processor models in the market, dropping the prices for the Athlon XP to the level of value CPUs. Our today’s tests include Athlon XP models ranging from 1900+ to 2800+. You should be aware that the Athlon XP series consists of processors based on different cores and having different L2 cache sizes and bus frequencies. You can find a Thoroughbred-core Athlon XP in shops with 256KB L2 cache and a 266 or 333MHz bus; Barton-core models with 512KB of L2 cache and a 333 or 400MHz bus; and Thorton-core CPUs which are made out of Bartons by disabling half of the cache, with a 266MHz or 333MHz bus. Note that Thorton and Thoroughbred cores are absolutely identical from the point of view of the end-user. It is also important that all Athlon XP family processors are plugged into the same socket, Socket A. We tested the following models of this family:

Model number

Frequency, GHz

Processor core

Bus frequency, MHz

L2 cache size, KB

1900+

1.6

Thoroughbred

266

256

2000+

1.67

Thoroughbred

266

256

2100+

1.73

Thoroughbred

266

256

2200+

1.8

Thoroughbred

266

256

2400+

2.0

Thoroughbred

266

256

2500+

1.83

Barton

333

512

2600+

2.08

Thoroughbred

333

256

2700+

2.17

Thoroughbred

333

256

2800+

2.08

Barton

333

512

The next diagram lists average retail prices for the processors we are going to test today:

Thus, I guess our test will create a comprehensive picture of the low-end CPU sector with processors priced from $50 to $120-130.

Testbed and Methods

We tested the aforementioned processors on a testbed that included the following hardware components:

We ran the benchmarks in Windows XP with Service Pack 1 and DirectX 9.0b installed. The BIOSes of the mainboards were set up for the maximum performance.

Note that although we review value processors, the testbeds include expensive and high-performing components (mainboards with a dual-channel memory controller, an expensive RADEON 9800 XT-based graphics card). We have reasons for that: by using such hardware we minimize its influence on the benchmark results and have a better view of the performance of the processor proper.

Performance

Office and Content-Creation Applications

We traditionally post here the results of the Winstone benchmarking suite.

Business Winstone 2004 shows the averaged performance of the platform in everyday office applications. The test simulates the user’s working in popular office programs and calculates the results basing on the time it took the programs to solve the required tasks. The benchmark uses an extensive list of applications, including Microsoft Access 2002 SP-2, Microsoft Excel 2002 SP-2, Microsoft FrontPage 2002 SP-2, Microsoft Outlook 2002 SP-2, Microsoft PowerPoint 2002 SP-2, Microsoft Project 2002, Microsoft Word 2002 SP-2, WinZip 8.1 SR-1 and Norton AntiVirus Professional Edition 2003.

Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 works along the same guidelines as Business Winstone 2004, but with another set of applications. It uses multimedia applications, which serve for creating and processing images, audio and video. The full list includes popular and professionally used products: Adobe Photoshop 7.0.1, Adobe Premiere 6.50, Macromedia Director MX 9.0, Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 6.1, Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9 Version 9.00.00.2980, NewTek LightWave 3D 7.5b and Steinberg WaveLab 4.0f.

Business Winstone 2004 clearly tells about a superiority of the Athlon XP team over the Celerons. Judging by the results of the Pentium 4 1.8A, the basic brake for the Celeron’s performance is the insufficient amount of cache memory. Thus, the Pentium 4 with 512KB of L2 cache and 1.8GHz clock rate proves to be as fast as the 2.7GHz Celeron.

Note also that the Athlon XP 2100+ and faster models outperform any Pentium 4 model that works at 2.4GHz! Thus, this test suggests that the Athlon XP architecture is highly efficient in office applications.

We see nearly the same picture in content-creation applications. Again, the Athlon XP family is all ahead of the Celeron line, including top-end Celeron models. This time the low results of the Celerons are due to the low FSB clock rate: just compare the results of the Pentium 2 2.4GHz processors with 533 and 800MHz FSB. The Pentium 4 1.8A can’t impress in this test: it shows the same performance as the Celeron 2.3GHz, but costs like the Celeron 2.8GHz!

PCMark04 is another test for estimating the processor performance in typical office applications. This benchmark also uses real algorithms, performing compression and decompression with the ZIP algorithms, checking grammar with Link Grammar Parsing Library, rendering Web pages in Internet Explorer 6.0, converting images into the JPEG format, encoding audio into the MP3 format with the Ogg Vorbis library, encoding video with the Windows Media Encoder 9 and DivX 5.0.5 codecs, working with graphics primitives through the Windows API, working in 3D through the Microsoft DirectX 9 API using the Havok Physics engine 2.1 (a system of physical modeling), scanning for viruses with F-Secure Anti-Virus, and encrypting and decrypting information with the Blowfish algorithm.

The Celerons are not altogether hopeless in this test. Anyway, comparison of like-priced models of the two series (Celeron and Athlon XP) is not in favor of the Celerons. The Pentium 4 1.8A is rather slow. The 512KB L2 cache doesn’t give any tangible advantages to this processor as its slow 400MHz FSB becomes the bottleneck. Thus, the leader here is the Pentium 4 2.4C with the 800MHz FSB and Hyper-Threading (PCMark04 actively uses this technology).

The benchmarking of the memory subsystem brings interesting results, too.

The Athlon XPs with the 266MHz bus lose in the memory speed to Celerons, but the transition to the 333MHz bus allows the Athlon XP working with the memory more efficiently, outperforming junior Celeron models with the 400MHz bus. Anyway, the Pentium 4 2.4GHz models with the 533 and 800MHz FSB are unrivalled leaders here.

Performance in Internet Applications

Inexpensive personal computers are often used as Internet clients so we dedicated a separate section of the review to typical Internet applications. We used the new WebMark 2004 benchmark which measures the speed (time it takes the system to react) of visiting various Web sites created with advanced Internet technologies (Macromedia Flash, Shockwave, JavaScript, Java, DHTML, SSL, .NET and others).

Well, you might have foretold it. The Intel Celeron family confidently occupies the bottom of the diagram, although their results are not downright bad as in other tests. For example, the top-end Celeron 2.8 outperforms the Athlon XP 2200+, although this is hardly a great achievement. The Pentium 4 1.8A again fails to justify its high price and works at the same speed as the twice-cheaper Celeron 2.2GHz. Now, let’s view the results in more detail:

The first diagram shows the speed of working with classical informational Web sites, and the second one shows the speed with commercial sites that provide paid services.

3DMark 2001 SE and 3DMark03

The once-popular 3DMark 2001 SE is an old test, but its showings are still interesting for many users.

The results confirm the disgustingly low speed of the Celerons that we noticed before. The Pentium 4 1.8A goes like the Celeron 2.8GHz – well, that’s natural as they cost about the same money. However, the Pentium 2.4 models with the faster FSB get much higher numbers and compete with the Athlon XP family, which are simply astounding performers against the Celeron series.

The situation remains the same in the new version of the benchmark. The low performance of the Celerons is already expected, but you should note that the processor-memory bandwidth is an important factor in this test. That’s why the Pentium 4 1.8A is slow, while the Pentium 4 2.4C is fast here.

Gaming Applications

We have the same thing in all the games: all Celerons are very slow. The Pentium 4 1.8A is true to its price and is a little faster than the Celeron 2.8GHz. The Athlon XP family shows high speed, especially in comparison to the sluggish Celerons. As for the Pentium 4 2.4B with the 533MHz FSB and 512KB L2 cache, it is definitely faster than any of the Celerons and can compete with Athlon XPs of 2500+ to 2800+ rating. However, considering the difference in prices, the Pentium 4 2.4B cannot be recommended as a good buy for a gaming computer.

A kind of out of the topic of the current testing session, let me point out a curious detail: the Pentium 4 2.4A on the new 90nm Prescott core is nearly always slower than the old Pentium 4 2.4B in games.

Data Compression, Audio and Video Encoding

As you see, the CPU-memory bandwidth is important for the speed of compression in WinRAR. Anyway, the Athlon XP with the 266MHz bus outperforms all Celerons and the Pentium 4 1.8A. On the other hand, the Pentium 4 2.4GHz models with the 533 and 800MHz FSB are perceptibly faster in WinRAR than the Athlon XP family.

It’s a bit surprising to see the results of the test for encoding MP3 files with the LAME codec. Firstly, we see the top-end Celeron models outperforming the 2.4GHz Pentium 4s. Secondly, the Celeron 2.8GHz for example feels so strong here as to run faster than the Athlon XP 2500+. Well, that’s not a great deal, considering that the Celeron 2.8GHz costs you $120 and the Athlon XP 2500+ costs $80. Anyway, this result is impressive if we recall the performance of the Celerons in other tests.

Again, the Celerons are much more appealing than in games, for example. Anyway, you shouldn’t compare them to Athlon XP models of the same price – the Athlons are preferable. Note also the low speed of the Pentium 4 2.4B – the 2.6GHz Celeron leaves it behind!

The test for encoding video into the MPEG-4 format gives you practically the same picture.

Professional Applications

Well, value processors are unlikely to be used in professional workstations so we limit ourselves with only one benchmark, CineBench 2003, which shows the speed of final rendering in the OpenGL Cinema4D suite.

We have no revelation here. Once again, the Celeron family looks poor against the competing offers from AMD.

Overclocking

We couldn’t leave out the problem of overclocking in this review. Many users buy value processors to use them at higher frequencies than rated by the manufacturer. Cheap processors often have a nice overclockability, so owners of such products may squeeze them out for a higher (and sometimes much higher) performance. So we decided to add an overclocking-related section into this roundup.

Intel Celeron. The above-described Celeron processors feature good overclockability. Their overclocking potential largely depends on the tech process employed in their production. Particularly, models with 1.7 and 1.8GHz clock rates are produced with the 0.18-micron process and are bad at overclocking: the old manufacturing technology doesn’t allow for a good speedup. After increasing the Vcore by 10-15% and without applying any special cooling methods, you can usually raise the frequency of such a processor to 2.0-2.1GHz. Thus, junior Celeron models don’t suit for overclocking.

Models whose frequency starts from 2GHz are produced using the advanced 0.13 tech process. This fact explains their good overclockability, to 3.0GHz and higher. Newer Celerons are a little better at overclocking than older ones, but older Celerons with lower frequencies may provide higher performance as they support faster FSB clock rates, and the FSB frequency is among the basic bottlenecks in Celeron-based systems.

Intel Pentium 4 1.8A. This CPU is one of the overclocker’s favorites. The Pentium 4 1.8A is among the junior Pentium 4 models on the 0.13-micron Northwood core and it can easily speed up reaching the frequencies of top-end Pentium 4 on this core. Nearly all Pentium 4 1.8A chips can overcome the 3GHz barrier and many such processors are stable at 3.2GHz and higher. You overclock the Pentium 4 1.8A through increasing the FSB because this CPU, like the Celeron, has a locked multiplier.

AMD Athlon XP. As I said above, Athlon XP processors are based on two cores: Thoroughbred and Barton (Thorton). Anyway, notwithstanding the different amount of cache memory in these cores, they are both produced with the same 0.13-micron tech process. As a result, all CPUs of this family have similar overclockability. Thus, Thoroughbred-core processors usually speed up to 2.1-2.2GHz after you increase the Vcore by 10-15%. Processors on the Barton and Thorton cores can reach higher, to 2.2-2.3GHz. All latest models of the Athlon XP have a locked multiplier and you overclock them by increasing the FSB clock rate, like with the Celeron and Pentium 4. Well, FSB overclocking provides additional performance gains.

Now that AMD and Intel have both focused on producing newer and advanced CPU series, the processor cores employed in the value sector have been unchanged for long. This makes me think that the above-mentioned overclocking limits will remain such in the future. That’s why we decided to overclock and compare the performance of the Celeron, Athlon XP and Pentium 4 1.8A, which fits into the definition of a value processor. I didn’t want to test numerous analogous CPUs differing in the regular frequency only, so I just took the junior members from each family. These processors are overclocked like the top-end models, but provide a higher performance due to the higher FSB clock rate that contributes to the overall system speed. Moreover, people who buy a processor with overclocking in mind are likely to prefer models with lesser clock rates and prices, but that would show the same performance as top-end models. I overclocked all processors by increasing the FSB frequency and without changing the multiplier (well, I couldn’t – it is locked in all modern value processors).

So let’s get acquainted with participants of our second testing session:

Note that I don’t set myself a goal of impressing you with any overclocking records. My goal was to check out which processor family was better at overclocking. In other words, what processor you should buy if you are going to use it at a non-regular frequency. Thus, I didn’t use any special cooling methods and only increased the Vcore by 10-15% above the nominal value.

The testbeds remained the same as well as the set of benchmarks. The results follow.

Overclocking Performance

Office and Content-Creation Applications

Performance in Internet Applications

3DMark 2001 SE and 3DMark03

Gaming Applications

Data Compression, Video and Audio Encoding

Professional Applications

All the results fit together to form the following picture: the overclocked Pentium 4 1.8A processor wins nearly all the tests, although it never was a leader at its regular frequencies. This processor is perhaps the best overclocker in the current market – you can raise its frequency by 80%! No other CPU model can boast this overclockability.

The processors of the Celeron family are prone to overclocking, but their “value” nature tells at overclocking, too. The higher clock rate doesn’t help them out – the performance remains low.

The results of the Athlon XP CPUs are good enough, but you should be aware that they are not as overclockable as processors from Intel. That’s why the overclocked Pentium 4 1.8A finds itself ahead of the overclocked Athlon XP models on the Thoroughbred and Barton cores. At the same time, the price of the Pentium 4 1.8A is still higher than that of any Athlon XP, so economical overclockers should consider the

Conclusion

Now we’ve got to the end and it’s time to say some final words. First, let me show a diagram with averaged performance results of each tested processor. We calculated this value as the geometric mean of results in the tests normalized to the performance of the Intel Celeron 1.7GHz:

So, CPUs from AMD are the fastest processors for cheap computer systems today. All the Athlon XP family surpasses the Celeron series, including its eldest members. For example, the Athlon XP 1900+ wins more tests over the Celeron 2.8, especially games, although costs half of its price. In fact, elder Celeron models can only beat junior Athlon XP CPUs in various encoding applications. Thus, if you want to have a fast computer for reasonable money, consider the Athlon XP family in the first hand. The Pentium 4 1.8A GHz may be an appealing offer, too. At its regular frequency this processor is no hero, though. It costs something like the Celeron 2.8GHz, but performs like a Celeron 2.4GHz in a majority of applications. But there are two more points. Firstly, the Pentium 4 1.8A is quite satisfactory in games. And secondly, it is highly overclockable. After overclocking, this processor shows the best results among all the models of this price sector.

Among the Athlon XP assortment, I’d say that the best price/performance ratio goes to junior models with a 256KB L2 cache and the 266MHz bus. Increasing the cache size and the bus frequency you do get some performance growth, but it is not worth of the extra money you pay for these improvements. Besides that, junior Athlon XP models, especially on the Thorton core, are good overclockers and you can usually give them a boost to reach the performance level of elder Athlon XP models. And you get this for a paltry sum of $60-70.

You may have noticed that our sympathies are with the Athlon XP in the value processor field. Well, I have something to say to the army of Intel admirers. Cheap CPUs from this company can’t boast good performance, but if you go Intel, you should go for more expensive products. For example, Pentium 4 processors show much better results on the 533MHz FSB. The Pentium 4 2.4A and Pentium 4 2.4B are selling for just a little more than elder Celerons, but they offer you considerably more performance, although it’s still not extraordinary against Athlon XP models of the same price. The NetBurst architecture spreads its wings in full only after being transferred to the 800MHz bus and after enabling Hyper-Threading. But these things only occur in a higher price category as we’ll soon see: we are going to step up in our upcoming reviews to examine what Intel and AMD are offering us in the mainstream sector.