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Weekly Column

Report From Eden: Celerons and Cybersmut on a Drive Down Under

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Eden appears to be pretty much for sale, with real estate signs sprouting all over. Eden is a fishing village on the coast of New South Wales, Australia, right near the border with Victoria. It faces the Tasman Sea and has a very nice surfing beach stocked with very nice surfers, some of them clothed. I stopped through Eden this week on a drive from Sydney to Melbourne to give a speech. A slave to airline ticket restrictions, my required Saturday stay gave me plenty of time, so I decided to make the 700 mile drive and contemplate my life while dodging wombats and remembering to drive on the left side of the road.

It is sobering to admit that my life is as boring as it is, so 100 miles into the trip I abandoned self-examination in favor of thinking about computers. Australia is very Internet savvy, with 20 percent of homes now online. This level of service came in handy when I was failed by AT&T Worldnet, my normal on-the-road ISP. AT&T Worldnet was judged the best U.S. ISP by some computer magazine, but I have to tell you, those editors never tried leaving the country. Since my last overseas trip, AT&T Worldnet inconveniently dropped overseas access numbers from its Web site, forcing me to spend more than $50 on telephone calls to New Jersey to get a Melbourne access number that then DIDN'T WORK. Why do they call it "Worldnet?" Why did I even bother? For less than $30 I picked up a CD-ROM from Microplex, an Aussie ISP, giving me tons of software and 40 free hours online. I spent more time and money on hold with AT&T Worldnet than I did acquiring and installing the Microplex software.

It becomes quickly clear that Microplex does a lot of local Web caching and for good reason, because the cost of Internet backbone lines to the U.S. is very high. What I didn't realize before this trip is that the cost of these backbones is borne entirely by foreign ISPs even though the traffic goes in both directions. The rationale behind this network imperialism is that the foreigners want access to our dirty pictures rather than our wanting access to theirs. So, dammit, they have to pay. And while it is true that about 80 percent of the Internet traffic between Australia and the U.S. is them surfing us, the 20 percent that is us surfing them is free to U.S. users.

As in the U.S., Australians are very concerned with protecting their kids from cybersmut. This seems to me the most peculiar debate, no matter in which country it takes place. I can't decide if we are all just hypocrites or lazy. Here's how it works: Somebody gets upset, national debates ensue, and finally a group emerges arguing for what amounts to repealing the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. I appeared once on a radio show with conservative columnist Arianna Huffington and she called for just that. This lady is dangerous.

Here's the part that makes no sense at all. Beyond getting upset, beyond provoking a lot of impassioned sermons in churches across America, beyond burning broadcast hours on C-SPAN, beyond telling a lot of other people how to live their lives and what to do, WE PRETTY MUCH MAKE NO REAL EFFORT TO PROTECT OUR FAMILIES. While Arianna Huffington wants to turn off the Net to protect her little boys, I suggest she buy a copy of Surf Watch, Cyber Patrol, or Net Nanny. These packages that control access to cybersmut through a variety of techniques would go a long way toward fixing the problem without having to fix the Net, except NOBODY BUYS THEM.

Not one of these packages sells more than a thousand retail copies per month according to PC Data. I say, let he who is without sin buy the first CD-ROM.

A fair number of people thought I was crazy in last week's column about Intel. What I liked about their comments was not that I was so wrong in what I had said, but that I had missed a significant point in my call for a delay in Pentium III purchases and a closer look at the new AMD K6-3. In the nerd crowd right now, the top chip in terms of mind share comes from Intel, but it isn't the P-III. It's the lowly Celeron.

A few months ago, Intel introduced a new family of Celerons, its entry-level microprocessor. The old Celerons were dogs, essentially a Pentium II core without any memory cache. You could put L-2 cache on a Celeron motherboard, but it could be accessed only at the bus speed of, then, 66 MHz. The result was that a 300 MHz Celeron was effectively slower than a K6-2/233.

But the new Celerons are completely different. Intel probably should have changed the name, but doing so might have given too much of a tip-off to consumers. As it is, the new Celerons have the highest price/performance of any mainstream processor you can buy. What has changed is the new Celerons now have 128K of cache memory. This is less than the 512K that comes in the typical P-II or P-III, but tons more than the 0K that came in the first Celerons. The big news, though, is that this cache is on-chip and accessible not at the bus speed of (now) 100 MHz, or at half the main clock speed (150 MHz for a 300 MHz chip) like on the Pentium II, but at the full speed of the chip, which can be more than 300 MHz. This is the same way Intel built the old Pentium Pro chips and builds the new Xeon, its most powerful processor. Sure, the Xeon has either 512K or 1024K of on-chip cache, but with 128K of on-chip cache, the Celeron is still a screamer. It is like a baby Xeon.

Wait, there's more! Research in the hacker community shows these new Celerons are very easy to overclock. That is, if you raise the clock speed of the system, the chips runs at that faster speed with no problems. A survey at shows that 98 percent of Celeron chips have no problems at all running at main clock rates at least 50 percent higher than they are labeled for. I have a friend who has been running a Celeron 300A chip at 450 MHz for months with no problems at all.

Remember, this is an $80 chip.

The impact this information has on how you configure your next PC can be significant. If you overclock the Celeron instead of buying a P-II or P-III, you can either keep in your pocket the several hundred dollars saved, or you can spend the savings on making your system faster still. If it is a game machine, obviously buy a better video card. No matter what kind of machine, buy more memory. If it is a server, especially one running Linux, use part of the savings for a SCSI controller and disk and the rest for more main memory. SDRAM-100 seems to handle overclocking fine, too, so you probably won't have to bother with the new 133 MHz SDRAMs.

Does Intel want us to know this? Of course not. I can only conclude that the company made an error and these faster Celerons slipped through unnoticed. Instructions for overclocking are everywhere on the Net, but it is generally handled either through modifying the BIOS setup held in CMOS or by changing some jumpers. Either way, increased performance is only moments away.


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