In the blue corner, Intel's brand-new Pentium 4 weighs in at 1500MHz and sports a completely redesigned core, a greatly speeded-up system bus, and high-bandwidth RDRAM memory. In the red corner, the latest Athlon at 1200MHz has a similar core to previous models, but its enhanced clock and bus speed and new Double Data Rate memory make it a worthy opponent for Intel's latest flagchip.
Intel's strategy is to use the Pentium 4's architecture, designed for extreme speed, to exceed the Athlon's top speed - much the same way the Athlon did with the Pentium III - and once again dominate the high end of the market. It also relies on widespread adoption of its new SSE2 instructions into software to optimise programs for the P4 architecture - not such a big risk, since we're talking about the world's most influential chip company here - but it will take time for the changes to spread throughout the software world.
While some early overseas tests indicate that enabling software for these new instructions can make a big difference to the Pentium 4's performance, suitably updated software was unavailable here at the time of writing, so our tests don't show the effect of SSE2. In any case, AMD is reported to be incorporating SSE2 into future processors, so in a few months the picture is likely to change again.