Intel joins the 64-bit desktop fray

Intel on Sunday announced the availability of Pentium 4 Extreme Edition and Pentium 4 processors featuring the company's EMT64 64-bit extensions. With the imprint of competitor Advanced Micro Devices's x86-64 64-bit Athlon 64 processors continuing to grow -- both in the industry and in the mind of the consumer -- the move was not unexpected.

AMD first released its 64-bit desktop processors in 2003. At the time, Intel said it had no plans to enter the 64-bit desktop arena. However, Intel did release EMT64-enabled Xeon processors last October.

Today's move by Intel is good news for consumers, who now have a buying choice in 64-bit extended desktop processors.

PC World's first look

PC World US put one of the new processors to the test, benchmarking a 3.6-GHz EMT64 Pentium 4 while running both the 32-bit version of Windows XP Professional and Release Candidate 2 of the 64-bit Windows XP Professional X64 Edition.

For competition's sake, we also put an Athlon 64 3800+ processor through the rigors of our WorldBench 5 benchmark suite. This slightly higher rated 2.4-GHz Athlon 64 bested the P4 in WorldBench tests in normal 32-bit Windows XP Professional by three points, but on Windows XP Professional X64 Edition, the Intel chip closed the gap considerably. To be fair, only about two-thirds of our PC WorldBench apps would run on XP Pro X64, so it's impossible to predict what the final total would have been. However, everything else being equal, we're convinced you'll lose nothing with Intel's brand of 64-bit extensions.

The best news is something that Intel has largely avoided talking about but that our tests corroborate -- EMT64 is compatible with x86-64. AMD or Intel, it's all the same: Either brand of 64-bit extended CPU will run the upcoming 64-bit Windows operating system. According to Brian Marr, Microsoft's Senior Product Manager for Windows, "Windows XP Professional X64 Edition is compatible with all processors that have added 64-bit extensions to the industry-standard x86 instruction set, including AMD Athlon 64, AMD Opteron, Intel Xeon with EM64T, and Intel Pentium with EM64T."

The bad news is that word "upcoming." Until XP Pro X64 ships, most users -- apart from the Linux community, whose members can leverage these 64-bit CPUs now -- won't derive any 64-bit benefits. Even when Microsoft's X64 OS ships, only applications that are optimized and recompiled to utilize the new instructions and registers will deliver a marked improvement. The primary benefit of 64-bit computing isn't speed, it's larger databases, more directly addressable memory, finer resolution for audio, video, and games, and so forth.

Is now the time for 64-bit computing?

Having 64-bit computing won't change or improve your everyday computing experience -- at least not in the short term -- because of the software shortfall. The same phenomenon affects the gaming industry, where software lags far behind the available technology.

But the benefits of 64-bit computing are real, and while there's no pressing reason to switch, there's also no reason not to. The best news is that you can now choose a CPU solely on price and performance -- without worrying about whether it will run the next generation of 64-bit operating systems optimally.

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Jon L. Jacobi

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