Stuart Corner at iTWire succumbs to our old nemesis, corporate marketing.
Intel have for years pushed the line that megahertz (MHz) equals speed. Apple used to call this the ‘Megahertz Myth’. Intel competitors AMD and Cyrix were for many years forced to resort to using a ‘Performance Rating’ system in order to compete. The fact is that computing performance is far more complicated than raw clock speed.
As the marketing droids at Intel gained political superiority within the company in the late 1990s, its architectures devolved into marketectures. The Pentium 4’s NetBurst is a classic example. Unleashed in 2000, in the wake of Intel’s loss to AMD in the race to release the first 1GHz chip, it was widely panned for being slower than similarly-clocked Pentium 3s in some tests. While less efficient clock-for-clock, it was designed to ramp-up in MHz to beat AMD in sheer marketing power.
In recent years, Intel have been hitting the limits of their own fallacy. Higher clock frequencies generate more heat and consume more power, and start pushing the physical limits of the media. You may have noticed the shift in Intel marketing from megahertz to composite metrics like ‘performance per watt’. What they are trying to indicate is that they are innovating in all parts of the CPU — not just the clock speed — to deliver greater overall performance. Through greater efficiencies, they are able to improve performance per clock cycle, whilst also addressing heat and power usage (which is especially important in portable devices and datacentres).
You should also notice Intel’s sudden emphasis in recent years on model numbers (e.g. ‘Core 2 Duo T7200’) rather than just MHz (e.g. ‘Pentium 4 3.0 GHz’). They are trying to shift the market away from the myth that they so effectively perpetuated over a series of decades. My laptop’s Core 2 Duo T7200 (2.0 GHz) is clearly faster than my Pentium 4 desktop running at the same clock speed. Reasons for this include (but are not limited to) the presence of two cores (each running at 2GHz), faster RAM and a much larger cache.
Now, Stuart makes the mistake of presuming that Intel’s CPUs are not getting any faster since they have not increased in megahertz. Instead of berating Intel for finally being honest, why can’t we praise them? Addressing real performance (not some ‘MHz’ deception), including the previously-ignored factors of power consumption and heat generation, is of benefit to us all.
If there is anyone to criticise, it is the hardware vendors. They have successfully countered Intel’s message by continuing to market their systems using MHz as a key selling point. The general public (and evidently most of the press) are left to believe that computers aren’t getting any faster. Given the convenience of a single number as an indicator of performance, who can blame them?
When end-user experience is taken into account, software developers fall under the microscope. Windows Vista is the obvious posterchild — I’ve seen dual-core 2GB systems that once flew with GNU/Linux and (even) Windows XP, now crippled to the speed of contintental drift after being subjected to the Vista torture.
Update: The article’s content seems to have been edited to remove any criticism of Intel, but the sceptical title (‘Intel’s new chips extend Moore’s Law, or do they?’) remains.
Update 2: Now that I have explained that megahertz on its own is only of minor consequence to CPU performance (leave alone overall system performance), we can see that it is often not even a conclusive way to compare different CPUs. A Pentium 4 can be slower than a similarly clocked Pentium 3. This inability to compare becomes even more stark when scrutinising completely different processor families. Apple had a point when they trumpeted the “Megahertz Myth’ back when they were using PPC CPUs. Clock-for-clock, a PPC CPU of that era was faster than the corresponding (by MHz) Intel chip, often by a considerable margin. Apple countered Intel with benchmarks demonstrating the speed of their CPU versus Intel’s. Benchmark quality aside, their intent was to show that a seemingly ‘slower’ PPC chip could outperform its Intel competition. It is a shame that the promotion didn’t convince more of the general populace.