The Pentium 4 2.0A (Northwood) – Should You Upgrade?

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The P4 2.0A – A Worthy Upgrade?

Once again, one of the hardest things about reviewing Intel’s latest generation CPU line was deciding what to compare the Intel Pentium 4 (iP4) 2.0A CPU to and just what to test it with. What kind of buyer would consider buying a system based on it, and what criteria would he/she use to decide if it was a viable product or not?

For purposes of this article I decided to assume the potential buyer is a loyal Intel user. That could be just because it has the Intel brand name on it, he/she has used Intel products in the past and was a satisfied user, Intel was recommended by either an acquaintance or a sales person (very common), he/she wished to use one of the highest speed CPU in it’s MHz rating of any PC available or due to corporate guidelines that require purchasing an Intel product (not an uncommon reason). I’m not saying those are the best reasons to choose a product, just that I think they are valid for a large number of PC system or component buyers and I will use them here. Those guidelines would rule out comparing to an AMD based system, so no attempt to do so will be made in this article. I’m also going to assume the system being replaced or upgraded was purchased in the relatively recent past and may have some updated components / software – in other words the user likes to keep both the hardware and software (including the Operating System) up to date, within reason.

With the above criteria I decided to assume the following scenario: I have an Intel Pentium 3 (iP3) 800EB based system that was purchased a year or so ago. At the time it was just a step down from the fastest CPU available (in order to keep cost reasonable) and I used a Mainboard based on the Intel 815EP chipset using SDRAM. For its time, that Mainboard, CPU and memory combination was quite fast and reasonably priced. Furthermore, I recently updated the Operating System to Microsoft Windows XP Professional (WinXP), replaced my hard drive with a new ATA/133 unit (even though my Mainboard only supports ATA/100) and upgraded my video card to an nVidia based GeForce 3 Ti200 video card. But I’ve decided that I still need (or is that want?) more performance. Since most of my system is up to date, I think that I would like to just upgrade it to an iP4 system rather than buy a whole new system (or perhaps that is all I can get away with for whatever reason).

So what CPU, chipset and memory type should I upgrade to? If I’m thinking like a typical (Intel) consumer, I believe the iP4 2.0A with 512K L2 cache might make sense. It is not quite the fastest (and doesn’t carry a price premium), but has twice the L2 cache as my present CPU does and is over twice as fast as my present CPU (in MHz, at least). I have ruled out the earlier iP4 series CPU’s, both the original 423 pin packaging (due to it pretty much being obsolete) and the earlier 478 pin CPU’s (they are .18 micron and only have 256K of L2 cache). Since I’m only looking at Intel products, that limits the chipset to either the i850 or new i845 series, and the deciding factor here will be what memory I plan on using. Looking at different reviews available both on line and in print, along with listening to sales people, I think the new i845 chipset with DDR memory would be the best choice, because it looks to have the best performance to value ratio. The i850 uses RDRAM, which costs more and just doesn’t seem to offer any extra value (in other words – is no faster). The i845 and SDRAM just doesn’t seem to have the level of performance to go with the top of the line CPU I plan on using (even though that means I could keep my present memory). But the i845 with DDR looks to be just what I was looking for – reasonable price and good performance, due to the high data throughput DDR memory, which is available just about anywhere and is the current industry standard for PC memory.

So my questions are:

  1. Will I see enough of a performance gain over my present system by just updating the Mainboard and CPU to an iP4 to rationalize my purchase?
  2. What else will I need to change in order to perform the upgrade?

The answer to the second question is a pretty easy one. As noted above I’ll need to purchase new DDR memory. Not a big deal with today’s memory prices (even though they are on the rise) and it looks to offer the throughput needed by my new CPU. I’ll also need to update the Power Supply (P/S) to a newer unit that meets the ATX 12v standard, which includes an extra 4 pin connector from the P/S to the Mainboard and increased output on the 12v, 5v and 3.3v lines. About the only other thing needed is to make sure my case has adequate air flow and that can be solved by adding an 80mm case fan.

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