Our benchmark analysis really has two specific areas to address, so let's start off with the Pentium 4-3.4 GHz Extreme Edition. Needless to say, when it comes to pure gaming performance, the Pentium 4-3.4 GHz EE is definitely at the top of the food chain, and doesn't take a back seat to any other processor. The high-end Athlon 64 models do come close, but the newest Extreme Edition is not only a benchmark champion, but an incredible real-world performer as well. The standard 8K L1/512K L2 design allows relative performance compared to the Northwood, and the core's 2-MB of L3 cache really pays dividends in the gaming arena.
The Pentium 4 3.2E Prescott is a bit tougher egg to crack, and its overall performance ranking can change based on the benchmark used. When a processor core doubles its L1 cache to 16K and its L2 cache to 1-MB, you expect a commensurate performance jump, even if core speeds remain static. Unfortunately, that's not what happened, and although there are areas where the Prescott and Northwood cores showed a slight advantage, overall performance is pretty well a dead heat.
It seems that the architectural changes have had a dampening effect on the larger cache levels, with the longer pipeline enacting a penalty that the later 16K L1/1-MB L2 Prescott cache makes up for. The real benefit of the Pentium 4 Prescott core is not in its relative performance advantages, but in the future speed increases a 90nm core can offer, and it's highly likely that if Intel had jumped in at 3.4 GHz (which is announced, but as yet not available), we're not having this conversation.
The Pentium 4 3.2E checks in at a street price of just over $300 for the retail version, which is about on par with the current Pentium 4-3.2 GHz Northwood price levels. It's much the same story through the 3.0E and 2.80E GHz Prescott vs. Northwood models, with each featuring a very similar price. Basically, Intel has taken away any price advantage of going with one core or the other, and for our money, the Prescott wins out. Overall gaming performance is equivalent, the Pentium 4 3.2E is killer on the multimedia encoding tests, and by virtue of the Prescott's 90nm core, the Northwood can't approach it in potential overclocking speeds. Of course, this assumes similar street prices, and for those who operate their systems at stock speeds, it's really a matter of which CPU you can find for the best price.
The Pentium 4-3.4 GHz Extreme Edition is a different story, and Intel makes no bones about its premium pricing. The current street price sits at just over $1K for the 3.4 GHz EE model, while the 3.2 GHz EE rests just north of the $950 mark. Many scoff at these premium prices, and while they are out in the stratosphere, there is some method to the madness. There are obviously buyers who will pay for the very fastest hardware, and as long as Intel keeps producing higher-speed models, then this market position will continue to bring in the niche, upper crust, enthusiast crowd. The Pentium 4-3.4 GHz Extreme Edition is the fastest gaming processor on the planet, and while its impact on total system costs can be prohibitive, when contemplating new system vs. CPU upgrade options, $950 to $1K might not seem like that much money.
This seamless upgradeability is one major benefit of the Prescott and Extreme Edition models. Current i875P, i865-based Intel platforms (check your motherboard manufacturer to confirm) do support the Prescott, so upgrade buyers can not only receive a nice speed infusion, but also jack potential overclocks sky high. This is one area that Intel holds the advantage over AMD, as a new motherboard or memory is not needed to receive the benefits of Intel's best and brightest.
* Please note that these prices were taken at the time of review and are not meant to reflect long-term trends.
Intel has presented us with two very different processor releases, each with its own set of benefits and pitfalls. The Pentium 4-3.2E Prescott offers core enhancements and the doubling of the L1 and L2 cache levels, but the 3.2 GHz release core speed is a bit of let down. The 90nm core should be an overclocker's dream, and the presence of Socket 478 upgrade options is a welcome change from the usual game of "revolving platforms". The Pentium 4-3.2 E is a welcome release, but the Prescott's true calling is when Intel can release higher-than Northwood core speed revisions, and really take the line to a higher performance plane.
The Pentium 4-3.4 GHz Extreme Edition is the latest speed revision to Intel's enthusiast-level processor line, adding 200 MHz to the previous 3.2 GHz EE model, and increasing its already-impressive performance levels. This processor may deliver the performance goods, but it comes at a steep price, so only those with deep wallets need apply. Neither processor is a first-pitch home run, but both are nice additions to their respective lines and bode well for the future of Intel performance computing.