PC challenge: can you pick the PIII-550?

In a taste test, most of you could tell Coke from Pepsi. But in a PC taste test, could you tell a Pentium III-550 from a slower, less expensive system? And do PIII machines add much when you're viewing PIII-enhanced Web sites? To find out, we asked two PC users to perform a suite of tasks using four unlabeled desktop machines: a PIII-550, a PIII-450, a PII-450, and a Celeron-400.

Our testers: Steve Hansen, owner of a moving company in San Lorenzo, California, and Jon Pevna, vice president of service procurement for Bank of America in San Francisco. Their verdict: a PIII-550 with a top-flight graphics board seems to galvanise 3D games. But in the other apps, differences were far more subtle.

Site seeing

First, we wanted to see whether Hansen and Pevna would notice the impact of the Pentium III's streaming SIMD extensions, which can improve the performance or appearance of Web sites that have been optimised for them. Each tester used two machines: a PIII-450 system and a PII-450.

Both men visited two PIII-enhanced sites, Sharper Image and Styleclick.com, shopping sites sporting 3D images of products. They rotated and examined a clock radio/CD player on the Sharper Image site and footwear on Styleclick.com. Both Hansen and Pevna said rotating the objects was just a tad easier with the PIII machine. "The lag is really subtle," said Hansen about the PII-450 desktop. "It wouldn't bother you." He said the Web sites looked excellent on both machines.

Overall, Hansen liked the 3D online shopping, but Pevna waxed a little less enthusiastic. "I don't know if you want to see (the clock radio/CD player) from 14 angles," he said. "It's sort of a gimmick." Neither of our testers thought either PC improved the shopping experience significantly.

Bread and butter

Next, our testers used Microsoft's Picture-It to edit an image for use on a Web page, trying out all four machines. After Hansen had used each machine to rotate and flip an image, apply a background, and touch it up, he quickly pronounced the PIII-550 system the fastest. He was a particularly astute judge for this test, since he edits images frequently for personal Web pages.

Hansen picked the PIII-450 as the second fastest. "When I'd flip objects, I could tell. It's subtle, the difference between machines, but (the PIII-550) is more fluid." He pegged the Celeron-400 as the slowest, though he said its performance was still very acceptable. Pevna did not notice a difference among the PIII-550, PIII-450, and PII-450 machines on this test, though he too said the Celeron-400 machine seemed slowest.

The testers next constructed a newsletter in Word, imported a graphic, added some shading, turned text into columns, and saved the file. Hansen detected little difference between the Pentium III-550 and the Celeron-400. Pevna thought the Celeron-400 felt a bit faster. Both reported only minor differences between the machines. In our Excel test, which involved working with a large file and copying and pasting large columns, the testers found even less difference between the machines. Hansen couldn't distinguish between the four systems. Pevna identified the PIII-550 and PIII-450 as fastest but saw no difference between those two.

Playing games

In our final test -- using Rage Software's PIII-enhanced game Expendable -- both Pevna and Hansen felt the PIII-550 system distinguished itself. It's worth noting that the PIII-550 had a very fast NVidia RIVA TNT2-based graphics board, while the other three machines used a Matrox G200 board. As expected, the combination of the graphics board and the PIII-550 processor made the game seem much more responsive than on the other machines. The difference was "black and white" Hansen said.

Notably, Pevna and Hansen both preferred the game's appearance on the PIII-450 to the way it looked on the PII-450. Given the machines' identical graphics boards, this means the PIII extensions are making a small but noticeable improvement for this game. But Hansen said the game moved faster on the Celeron-400 than on the PII-450.

At the end of the testing, Hansen was impressed with the Celeron-400 machine (despite the lag he noticed during the Picture-It task). He pegged it as the second fastest overall, behind the PIII-550, though he found all four machines acceptably peppy. "There was nothing that made you feel like you were growing old." Pevna ranked the PIII-550 as the fastest, followed by the PIII-450, PII-450, and Celeron-400.

Our testers concluded that a PIII-550 system provides a significant speed advantage with games but a small advantage for basic photo editing and a tiny advantage for enhanced online shopping. Even so, they said they were quite impressed by the PIII-450 and Celeron-400 machines.

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