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.

It is inter­est­ing to note that the design of the cur­rent Core line of CPUs (and its Pen­tium M pre­de­ces­sor) owes far more to the Pen­tium 3 than to the mar­ket­ing-dri­ven Pen­tium 4.

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.

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