Itís beginning to look a lot like ChristmasÖ
What kind of l33t hardware would this gamer want? Well, upon consideration, it was a surprise to me that the piece that impressed me most in the past year offered most of its benefits on the desktop. The 9700 Pro is revolutionary. The All-in-Wonder version is extremely tempting, but I suspect until Doom III comes out, I just wonít feel the need to upgrade. On the other hand, in recent months Iíve felt an acute irritation with desktop performance. Lo and behold, came the new King of the Hill, like a knight in shining armor to rescue me from my multi-tasking woes. If anybody is going to get me a piece of hardware for Christmas, thatís going to be it!
King of the Hill
For the past two years, Intel and AMD have been exchanging top spots quicker than a poker cheat changes cards. With only two exceptions, the lead has changed every month or so. Both involved what has now become a staple of the industry, the paper launch. The first occurred when Intelís Pentium III line was running out of steam but the Pentium 4 wasnít ready. Now, we see the opposite scenario, as AMDís current Athlons are on their last legs while they await the launch of the 64.
The launch of the 3.06GHz P4, in addition to cementing Intelís performance lead, was also the introduction of the killer desktop performance feature Ė Hyper-Threading. At a time when hardware has so outpaced games that people are running the latest titles on two-year-old computers, Intel needed a new way to sell chips. Since gaming didnít need a boost, what about the desktop? Sure, you can run all the Photoshop filters in a fraction of a second, and you no longer have to leave the computer running two straight nights to finish rendering for your animation class. But can you do all that, listen to your MP3s, watch your movies and maybe even play a game? Not unless you had a very expensive Xeon gig going, or an Athlon MP box (which have unfortunately been lagging quite a bit in the clock speed wars.)
With the mainstream adoption of the NT platform in the shape of Windows XP, simultaneous multiprocessing (SMP) on the mass market became feasible. AMD dabbled in it with some success using the Athlon MP, but the extra costs and complexities involved with a multi-chip solution have scared off many potential buyers. By including simultaneous multi-threading on the 3.06 and all future chips by default, Intel is removing all choice in the matter from the buyerís hands. Since the average mainstream user is completely clueless about computer hardware and would be inclined to buy a 2.0GHz P4 over an Athlon XP 2400 because the Ďmegahurts are higherí, weíre siding with Intel on the decision to cram it down their throats. Itís for the best, really.
What does Hyper-Threading mean for the rest of us? More efficient computers. A common knock on the Windows platform since the days of the Amiga has been its horrible multi-tasking ability. While itís gotten significantly better over the years, multi-tasking really needs multiple processors to work properly. A single processor has been historically extremely inefficient. Though it could do task X in twenty seconds and task Y in 30 seconds, doing them both at the same time, it might take 90 seconds. Hyper-Threading may not be as great as having two processors, but itís a lot simpler and provides a convenient solution.
Oh, and if you can afford a 3.06GHz chip, thereís absolutely no reason why it shouldnít be packaged in this yummy Shuttle SS51G. So maybe itís a little too big to be a stocking stuffer, but not by much!
This isnít so much an honorable mention as a wistful sigh. Athlon MP 2400s were just announced. If they had a faster solution available, Iíd be hard-pressed to put the Pentium 4 3.06GHz as my hardware gift of the year. The price of the P4 is ridiculous to the point that a real SMP solution is just as financially feasible. For sheer geek bragging value, itís hard to beat a SMP setup, though mommy and daddy would probably feel more comfortable with a single-chip solution.
Speaking of geek bragging rights, we have two geek award favorites in the graphics department. The first is the deathly quiet Sapphire 9700 Pro Ultimate. A 9700 Pro card without active cooling? Completely silent, and it looks damn sweet in that show case of yours? Can you beat that?
Maybe the Abit Siluro 4200 OTES can. Going in a completely different direction, it attempts the fanciest active cooling weíve seen yet on a video card. In a bit of irony, the Siluro and the Sapphire 9700 both use the same basic technology, but with vastly different intentions. Both of them are proof that thereís some honest-to-goodness innovation still left in the industry.