Choosing the components
Introducing the contenders
For this article, we've combined motherboards based on all the latest chipsets. From Intel we have the battle tested 440BX and the brand new 820 with RDRAM, from VIA we have have the Apollo Pro133A chipset and from AMD we have the 751 chipset with Super Bypass.
What is Super Bypass you ask? Super Bypass is a feature enabled on newer revisions of AMD's 751 chipset (specifically stepping 5 and above). With it, memory latencies between the CPU and main memory are reduced, improving system performance. This feature was disabled in our older Athlon motherboards so we were eager to see the performance improvement it offered if any.
Choosing the 600MHz CPU was a no-brainer for us. You see 600MHz is still the only "Coppermine" Pentium III we have for testing. Finding a Coppermine processor at any speed has become increasingly difficult recently, with many online vendors backordered for weeks.
In contrast the Athlon is quite easy to find with many vendors stocking Athlon's up to 750MHz. Finding the Athlon 800 is a bit harder, with most vendors backordered until mid-February. In the past AMD used to be the company with low supply of its faster processors. Just last spring AMD was hit with numerous supply difficulties with some of its K6-2 processors. It's a bit surprising to see the roles reversed so quickly.
While the Voodoo3 certainly isn't the fastest graphics cards on the block, we decided to use it for its solid support of all platforms. We wanted to use the faster GeForce 256, but due to AGP problems with earlier 750 chipsets, NVIDIA disabled AGP 2X operation with Athlon systems in their drivers.
Since then, AMD has released newer revisions of their 751 chipset that fix the problem. During testing with our Stepping Six 751 chipset we didn't encounter any problems during AGP 2X operation with the GeForce 256. Despite this, NVIDIA's reference drivers still force AGP 1X operation when the 750 chipset is detected.
For those of you who would like to try, there's a utility available that enables AGP 2X regardless of system configuration. The utility is actually a file that modifies your Windows registry and can be found here: http://web.ukonline.co.uk/christopher.hill/files/athlon2x.reg
So how do you know which revision of the Athlon chipset you have? One AMD fan site, Slota.com provides another free utility that not only tells you which revision of the Athlon chipset your motherboard has, it also tells you if Super Bypass is enabled. Created by Tamas Fejerpataky, this identification utility can also enable the Super Bypass setting for you.
With these tools available, tweaking an Athlon system for optimal performance should be an easy task for most consumers.