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Intel Pentium 4 Vs. Atom: A Battle Of The Generations

Intel Pentium 4 Vs. Atom: A Battle Of The Generations

Most people know that Intel’s Atom is a slow, low-cost processor. But does it even offer enough performance to take it beyond desktop processors nearly a decade old? Today we're comparing a modern Atom CPU to two Northwood-class Pentium 4-based PCs.

We were sorting out some old hardware in one of our test labs and wondered what to do with our old Socket 478 Pentium 4 gear. Disposing of it doesn’t feel quite right, and we know that many Pentium 4 systems remain in service. Clock speeds between 2 GHz and 3.4 GHz still provide sufficient performance for a home server or backup PC, so why not put up two different Pentium 4 systems against single-core and dual-core Atom solutions to see how today’s low-cost computing solutions hold up?

Convenience Computing

We done several articles dealing with Atom and comparing its performance and efficiency with other solutions. First and foremost, it’s important to note that Atom is not in the same market segment as desktop-oriented Core 2, Core ix, Phenom, or Athlon processors. Atoms enable the lowest-cost netbooks and nettop computers. They aren’t meant to be particularly efficient, and they won’t satisfy a power user. Any entry-level Core i3 desktop will provide many times better power efficiency, in fact.

Atom makes sense where local computing performance doesn’t matter very much: browsing the Internet, communicating via email or social networks, and processing documents and spreadsheets. For these, Atom is more than enough.

Buy Atom or Recycle P4?

Does it make more sense to purchase a cheap Atom-based computer or to recycle and/or continue to use an existing Pentium 4 machine? Both run at decent clock speeds and come with 512 KB of L2 cache. Both can be considered above average if you have modest performance expectations. And both have a comparable transistor count: 55 million for the Pentium 4 (based on the Northwood design) and 47 millions for the Atom 230.

More importantly, you might be able to get an older P4 system for very little money from a friend or business upgrading to newer hardware. We compare the Atom 230 and D510 to a Pentium 4 (Northwood) 2.2 and 3.2 GHz.

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  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , 16 July 2010 16:06
    Very interesting.

    I am about to buy a new 'main' workstation, upgrading from my old (and well loved) Pentium D 3.4Ghz.

    Therefore, I am currently debating if I should keep the old beast as a home server/torrent/etc machine or buy something like the Tranquil T7D (

    Clearly the Pentium D would perform better than the P4-HT chip tested here as it has two physical cores, but in the long run, I would be using a lot more power (particularly as the machine would be running 24/7).
  • 1 Hide
    aje21 , 16 July 2010 19:35
    I was interested in this because I have a P4 3GHz media center system at home (with an X300 card). I'm not sure if the benchmarks here help me though as I'm interested in things like how well the D510 would play back HD content on BBC's iPlayer (this is too choppy so I stick to SD content).
    Also, it would be nice to see some timings for Windows Media Center transcoding a recorded program to DVD - comparisons of different platforms and versions of Windows (I have Vista Home Premium, but will go with Windows 7 if I ever get around to upgrading).
  • 2 Hide
    ksampanna , 17 July 2010 03:13
    "P4: Oldie but Goldie"
    That sums it all.
    Never thought I'd read about the P4 in 2010
  • 1 Hide
    gamesmachine , 18 July 2010 19:45
    It's amazing when you think about it, I used to own a P4 based system in around 2006?! But due to gaming needs I upgraded to my now ageing Q6600 System. It's wired because as I look back I thought my P4 was seriously fast at everything like web browsing and older games, but its amazing with these benchmarks to see that an Atom can rival that system, as I find a netbook to be barley usable without Ion, and the power draw differences is outstanding. My girlfriends parents still use a P4 system at 3.2Ghz and when coming from newer systems the speed difference is very noticeable. 8years of innovation really does show and how clock speed really is not as important as an efficient design.

    Now in 10 years a review on Toms might just say the Core i7 is a massive slow beast compared to the new hotness.

    Great little comparison!
  • 1 Hide
    ryan156 , 18 July 2010 21:17
    I think there are two things these results highlight:
    1) The newer atoms are significantly better than the first generation largely due to the new chipset, though I'm disappointed not to see the 410 included in this comparison.
    2) Even an aging low performance graphics processor makes a huge difference compared to integratged graphics used by intel even now, if you look at the bench marks that include graphics the pentium system raced ahead. Also as gamesmachine points out, the Ion set up for Atom greatly improves it's performance and usability, most of us watch a great deal of videos and our desktop experiences even for the most casual user are still graphically intensive. I fail to see why Intel hasn't caught onto this.
  • 0 Hide
    wild9 , 18 July 2010 21:33
    The dual-core atom looks OK for basic stuff. Surprised Intel put so much into it to be honest, being as it's main selling point is low-power and low noise.

    As for the Pentium 4, if it does what you want, fair play to you. No disgrace in making the most of what you have, is there? At the time I went the AMD Athlon64 route, due to its stronger core and less concerns over power; I still remember friend's motherboard struggling to run a 'Prescott' P4. The noise and heat were just too much.

    I still run some of these older systems myself, mostly AMD . Some have ran almost 24/7..well beyond the expected life-span of their individual components. Spare PSU fans and discarded DDR memory come in very handy ;)  Just wish DDR memory wasn't so expensive by today's standards.

    With a couple of gigs of RAM, a dual-core CPU and a PCI-E card I older hardware like this to be surprisingly capable, right down to native USB 2.0 and S-ATA support. Even if they aren't exactly shining examples of energy efficiency, you can always enable features like Cool 'n' Quiet, etc.
  • 1 Hide
    proletarian , 19 July 2010 01:43
    i was working on an older computer about 3 weeks ago, it's the same old thing; i go in and see the beast and let out a groan as i know i'm walking into yet another Slow ass pc hell, you know the type, an old black and grey shitty dell machine with windows XP on it and half a gig of ram and the owner thinks they're getting another 15 years out of it.

    i was pleasantly surprised when i saw the Pentium 4 logo on it, and even though it only had half a gig of ram i was able to sail through the fix. These chips are a godsend, the P4 was a wee beastie compared to it's predecessor.
  • 2 Hide
    gamesmachine , 19 July 2010 01:53
    It's a shame there is no comparison between the p4 and the atom 330 with ion 2. or even atom 230 with ion, just to see the difference in 3D scores.
  • -1 Hide
    rebus_forever , 25 July 2010 21:58
    adverts make me sad
  • 0 Hide
    Scott2010au , 15 August 2010 12:41
    You forgot to add in what the power costs.
  • 0 Hide
    Avro Arrow , 16 September 2010 03:58
    I really don't know what this article is trying to spout but when you consider that a socket AM3 motherboard, a Sempron 140 2.7GHz CPU and 4GB of DDR3-1333 cost less than one of those crappy netbooks, I think that getting an Atom netbook to replace a P4 desktop system is a really STUPID thing to do. I'm pretty sure that the Sempron 140 would CRUSH a dual-core Atom.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , 25 January 2011 02:57
    i have a £60 pc my dad bought it when his compaq crashed. it has half a gig of ram, a 2.6 ghz P4 and 40 gigs of hard drive space. i now have puppy linux it runs like frickn fast!