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Intel Pentium 4 550 (3.4 GHz LGA775) Processor

Intel recently introduced a new processor package technology – Flip-Chip Land Grid Array – to the world, and Monarch Computer Systems sent one our way. Check out this review to see what the new package is like and how the P4 550 clocked at 3.4 GHz performs.

[review_ad]Introduction


As clock frequencies ramp up, packaging is playing a key role in processor performance these days. Important things to keep in mind when thinking about a processor’s speed are the interfaces between it and its package and between the package and the motherboard. If the pins or interconnects for either of these interfaces cannot handle transferring data as fast as the chipset’s front side bus demands it, then the processor speed is limited by the interface. Although its current processors are not quite outperforming the ability of these interfaces, Intel Corporation decided recently that it was time to introduce a new package for their flagship Pentium 4 line of processors in order to get ahead of the curve a little bit. The engineers at Intel chose a design that is quite different than any other mainstream CPU available today. The processor design itself has not changed; the packaging of the processor is what has changed. Intel is still using the recently released Prescott core (replaced Northwood) for their Pentium 4 line-up.

Intel’s new design is the flip-chip land grid array (FC-LGA) package. The most obvious thing that is so unique about this new design is that the pins are removed from the processor package. Yeah, you read that right. The pins are actually permanently attached to the motherboard in the new LGA775 socket. My first thought when I heard about this was, “Wow, no more worry about bending pins.” Unfortunately, that could not be further from the truth. Now, builders of Intel P4-based systems will have to worry about bending pins that are much harder to unbend, since being in the socket makes them more difficult to manipulate. However, since mainstream consumer motherboards are usually significantly cheaper than P4 processors, it may be fair to say that the consumer still comes out ahead with this new design. However, I doubt that motherboard manufacturers producing motherboards with this new socket are thrilled at all about the prospect of more support calls or RMAs due to bent pins!

Another important thing to note about this new interface is that it allows 775 pins to be crammed into nearly the same space that only 478 and 423 pins were packed into with Intel’s previous P4 package/socket interfaces. Of course, more pins means that more power can be delivered to the processor, and more data pins can be on the chip as well. For those not keeping score, this is the third package design for the P4. With the new package and socket designs, Intel has introduced two new chipsets with some great new features.

The 915G Express, 915P Express, and 925X Express are the new chipsets introduced by Intel for this new round of Pentium 4’s (check out this chart for a comparison of the three). The two 915 chipsets are targeted at the mainstream PC market, and the 925X chipset is meant for the performance PC market. All of these chipsets support PCI Express, an 800 MHz front side bus, Intel High Definition Audio, four SATA ports, and DDR2 memory. Obviously, Intel wants these new chipsets to take them well into the future.

Thanks to our friends at Monarch Computer Systems, Bjorn3D.com has one of these new LGA775 Pentium 4 processors to play with – the 550, which is clocked at 3.4 GHz. 550? Yes, in case you haven’t heard yet, Intel started using a new number scheme for its processors (more info). Intel has an entire lineup of these newly-numbered processors.


Specifications & Features


All of the specifications (except clock speed, of course) and features listed below are shared by all of Intel’s Pentium 4 LGA775 Prescott processors. One thing to keep in mind is that there are Prescott processors based on Intel’s previous package technology (FC-PGA4) available as well as the new PC-LGA4. If you want to get a motherboard/CPU combo that you will be able to upgrade beyond 4 GHz, you should probably look for an LGA775 (Socket T) solution.

Specifications:

Processor Number 550
Process Technology 90 nanometer
Clock Speed 3.4 GHz
Front Side Bus Speed 800 MHz
L1 Data Cache 16 KB
L2 Cache 1 MB
Package FC-LGA4 (Flip-Chip Land Grid Array)
Socket Type LGA775
Pin Count 775-land (pins are actually in the socket)
Min-Max Voltage 1.25-1.40
Supported Chipsets Intel 925X and 915
Supported Memory Types DDR2 400, DDR 400/333

Features:

  • Supports Hyper-Threading Technology
  • L1 data cache size of 16 KB (twice that of Northwood)
  • L2 cache size of 1 MB (twice that of Northwood)
  • 31-stage pipeline (11 more stages than Northwood) – this actually can be a detriment to performance, but Intel did this so that they could ramp up the clock speed well beyond 4 GHz
  • Improved branch prediction (helps the new, deeper pipeline’s performance)
  • Streaming SIMD Extensions 3 (SSE3) Instructions

Installation


Even though the processor package of Intel’s LGA775 chips is lacking pins, the overall installation procedure is not very different from usual P4 or even AMD processor installations. A few main differences do stand out, though. Since the socket works by simply making contact with the lands on the processor package, extra caution should be taken when handling the processor and the socket. Leaving oils or dirt from the fingers on the socket or lands could probably cause some serious, unwanted side effects. Even if the lands aren’t extremely sensitive to such things, it still seems as if these new processors require more care during installation than traditional socket processors.

Another interesting difference with this installation is the way the socket mechanism works. A metal frame pushes the processor down into its socket to provide the necessary pressure to maintain good, solid contacts between the processor-socket interface. Obviously this differs from the traditional socket mechanism that simply “locks” the pins of the processor in the socket. An important thing to realize is that this means where the CPU cooler used to help keep the processor in place by applying much of the force on it, this is really no longer necessary. The CPU cooler simply has to be able to press firmly enough on the processor’s heat spreader to provide a good conduit for heat.

The retail CPU cooler that Intel provides with the 550 was very easy to install. After putting Arctic Silver 5 on the processor, I placed the heatsink and fan (HSF) unit on top of the processor and locked down the four posts that hold it in place. That was it! This should be a very welcome feature for people who are used to AMD Athlon installations that involve an excruciating process in which you could slip a screwdriver off a lever and ruin your motherboard. I have to give props to Intel for making this process easier than ever! To remove the HSF, you simply use a screwdriver to rotate each of these pins a quarter-turn or so and then lift the unit off.


Performance


I think people usually like to see how an Intel system fairs against a competitive AMD system, so that is what I have decided to compare in this review – the 3.4 GHz 550 featured here to an AMD Athlon 64 3400+. What makes this comparison even more relevant is that these processors are currently available at the same price point — near $300. Unfortunately, we only have Athlon 64 motherboards based on first generation chipsets from NVIDIA and VIA, so the performance of the Athlon 64 system is not quite what it probably could be. Nonetheless, the comparison is still an interesting one.

This article marks the debut of BAPCo’s SYSmark 2004 at Bjorn3D.com. Unfortunately, we had troubles getting it to work on the Athlon 64 test platform. It repeatedly generated errors and ended the program before the benchmark would complete, even with the latest patch installed. Surprisingly, not even a completely new install of Windows helped the situation. However, I was able to run it successfully on the Intel system, and those results are shown below.

Intel System Configuration

  • Intel Pentium 4 550 (provided by Monarch Computer Systems)
  • Albatron PX915P (review coming soon!)
  • OCZ EB DDR PC3200 1 GB kit – 2 x 512MB (review)
  • Albatron GeForce PCX5750 (review coming soon!) – DirectX 9.0c, ForceWare 61.77
  • Hitachi Deskstar 7K250 160GB Serial ATA 7200RPM Hard Drive w/8MB Buffer
  • Windows XP with Service Pack 1
  • Hyperthreading – enabled

AMD System Configuration:

  • AMD Athlon 64 3400+ (review)
  • Chaintech ZNF3-150 Zenith nForce3 Motherboard (review)
  • Corsair XMS 1 GB PC4000 (running as PC3200)
  • Sapphire Toxic X800 Pro (review) – DirectX 9.0b, Catalyst 4.5
  • Maxtor 200GB DM9+
  • Windows XP with Service Pack 1

PCMark04 (1.2.0)

It looks like the 550 runs away with this synthetic benchmark. There really is not much to say, except that there are many different factors that could contribute to this, including the faster clock and the dual-channel memory configuration.

SiSoftware SANDRA 2004.SP2b (v 2004.10.9.133)

Again, the P4 550 dominates in synthetic benchmarks with the only exception being the Dhrystone ALU benchmark. I honestly didn’t expect the 550 to dominate this much in floating-point benchmarks. The memory bandwidth result is especially impressive considering the RAM is rated as PC3200.


Performance


SYSmark 2004 (with patch 1)


Unfortunately, these results are not too exciting by themselves, but I decided to include them for anyone wanting to compare them to others they have seen around on the Internet. I spent a little time comparing these numbers to similar systems’ numbers, and they certainly seem to be on par with what we can expect from this system.

POV-Ray (v 3.6)

Since ray-tracing is a rendering technique that is very CPU intensive, I decided to include the standard POV-Ray benchmark in this article. Persistence of Vision Ray-Tracer(tm) – POV-Ray – is a freely available tool that can be used for ray-tracing (a rendering technique often used to create impressive three-dimensional scenes).

CPU CPU Time Used Average Render Rate
Intel P4 550 1788.23 seconds 82.46 pixels/sec
AMD A64 3400+ 1763.14 seconds 83.63 pixels/sec

It looks like the two processors perform very closely here. The P4 550 is out-rendered by 25.09 seconds and 1.17 pixels per second. Since this was about 30 minutes of rendering, 25 seconds probably wouldn’t seem like a big deal to most people; however, if the scene grows more complex and requires hours to render, that 25 seconds would become minutes, which might cause more people to take notice.

Super PI – 33.55 Million Digits

I wanted to get another number crunching real-world performance benchmark in this mix, so I added this Super PI benchmark. The program allows you to select various numbers of decimal digits to calculate PI to, and out of sheer curiosity I chose the highest – 32M, which means 33.55 million digits.

CPU Time to compute 32M Decimal Places
Intel P4 550 34 minutes, 32 seconds
AMD A64 3400+ 35 minutes, 53 seconds

As you can see, it takes over 30 minutes for either processor to calculate PI up to 33.55 million digits. The Intel P4 550 comes out ahead, though, performing over one minute faster than the Athlon 64 system.

Unfortunately, we did not have a GeForce FX 5700 level video card to use in the Athlon 64 test system, so the results below are for only the Intel 550 test system, since it seemed like there would be little gained in comparing the two systems’ gaming abilities with one of them having a distinct advantage in the graphics subsystem.

AquaMark3

I only ran the default benchmark (1024×768, no AA, 4x AF, maximum detail) for AquaMark3, and I got the following results:

   Aquamark Score: 23649 (which correlates to an average FPS of 23.649)
     GFX Score: 2698
     CPU Score: 9549

These are certainly respectable scores for this benchmark. Of particular interest is the CPU score, which is about on par with other high-end CPUs that I have benchmarked.

Unreal Tournament 2003 Demo (2206)

For the UT2K3 demo benchmark, I used a custom script file in UT2K3bench to run a botmatch that included 12 bots to try to stress the CPU.




Overclocking


Although, the thought of an overclock lock can be discouraging, I decided to go ahead and give it a try with this P4 550. Unfortunately, I wasn’t even able to get very close to that 10% (the overclock lock percentage). I overclocked the front side bus (FSB) by 20 MHz, which resulted in a 10% overclock to 3.74 GHz. It booted fine, and Windows loaded fine. However, PCMark04 would randomly error out when I ran it. I went ahead and backed the FSB down to 210 MHz, and I successfully ran PCMark04 and UT2K3 benchmarks with the processor clocked at 3570 MHz, which is a 5% overclock.


Please note how the charts are arranged slightly differently. I realized a little too late that this could cause confusion. The 5% overclock results in a performance boost in the range of 4.6% to 6.2%, which is what should be expected.

Conclusion


My experience with Intel’s new FC-LGA4 package has been a positive one. The installation was only slightly different than other socket processor installations, since the main difference is that the pins are located in the socket instead of on the processor. The worry of bending pins has shifted from the processor to the motherboard. Along with the pins being in the socket, the LGA775 socket differs from other sockets in one more important way. Much of the force applied to the processor is actually delivered by the metal frame that closes down around the processor when the locking lever is pushed down. This means that the CPU cooler does not have to apply as much force as it has with previous designs. Installation and uninstallation of the cooler has definitely been made easier with this design.

If we consider only the synthetic benchmarks, the Intel P4 550 seems like a hands down performance winner for the near $300 price point. Clocked at 3.4 GHz, the 550 dominates these synthetic benchmarks soundly. However, the real world benchmarks paint a slightly different picture, showing that the Athlon 64 3400+ actually is quite competitive with the Intel 550, even on an older platform. Unfortunately, the lack of a comparable video card for the AMD system makes it hard to come to any conclusion about the graphics performance, and the struggle we had with SYSmark 2004 provided yet one less point of comparison. Nonetheless, the Pentium 4 550 does perform very well for its price point.

Monarch Computer Systems currently offers the entire LGA775 P4 lineup, with the retail P4 550 selling for $299.



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