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Just what can a system with the new Pentium 4 processor do for you? That varies widely by application.
The results turned in by the HP Pavilion 9905, configured with 256MB of DDR SDRAM and Windows XP Home, are especially instructive. We tested it with three different chips: a new Pentium 4 2.2 GHz, a new 2-GHz Pentium 4 2A GHz (Intel uses the "A" to distinguish the new CPU from earlier 2-GHz P4 chips), and an older Pentium 4 2 GHz. On PC WorldBench 4, which emphasizes productivity apps, the three systems earned very similar scores, so you probably wouldn't notice a difference while using Microsoft Office.
You would, however, detect a difference in Adobe Photoshop 6.0.1 and in AutoCAD. With a P4 2.2 GHz, the HP system finished our Photoshop tests 25 percent faster than it did using the older P4 2 GHz chip. We also saw a gain (of 16 percent) by the new P4 2A GHz CPU over the original 2-GHz chip on these tests. The boost was just as dramatic on the AutoCAD test: The HP with the P4 2.2 GHz shaved 92 seconds off the time of the unit with the P4 2 GHz chip. The P4 2A-based HP saved over a minute over the older P4 2 GHz-based PC. This pattern held true across our multimedia tests with the HP, too.
Results were less consistent when we compared the P4 2.2 GHz-based Dell and Compaq PCs with the MicronPC Millennia XP+ Professional. (All of these PCs ran Windows XP Professional.)
The MicronPC, equipped with AMD's Athlon XP 1900+ chip (which runs at 1.6 GHz) and 256MB of DDR SDRAM, posted a score of 119 on our PC WorldBench 4 test suite--that's 9 points higher than the Dell Dimension 8200, with a Pentium 4 2.2 GHz chip and 256MB of RDRAM. Though the difference in speed isn't huge (the MicronPC system performed 8 percent faster), you may notice it.
The Compaq Evo D300 had a score of 105; its use of fairly inexpensive SDRAM instead of faster but pricier RDRAM may have contributed to its marginally lower mark.
But with standard business apps, none of these systems performed much better than machines with slightly slower CPUs. The Dell unit scored 2 points above the average mark of three previously tested PCs with older P4 2 GHz chips, while MicronPC's Athlon XP machine earned only 4 more points on PC WorldBench 4 than an Athlon 1.4 GHz PC.
The results on our graphics apps and multimedia tests were mixed. The MicronPC unit did best on our AutoCAD and Photoshop tests. It shaved 25 seconds off the Dell's time in AutoCAD, and it was about 10 seconds faster than the Dell on each Photoshop test. But the Dell took top honors on the multimedia tests, albeit by smaller margins: Its strongest score, on the Windows Media video test, was about 8 percent (5 seconds) faster than the MicronPC system's.
Software patches designed to exploit features in specific hardware may net you better performance. Adobe's patch for Photoshop is geared for P4 PCs, but in our tests it produced improvements on the Athlon XP unit too. We saw virtually identical results on our multiple filters test, which stresses integer functions, but on our floating-point-intensive lighting effects test, the scores for the P4-based PCs improved by about 8 percent.