Intel puts four on the floor

This week's Intel Developer Forum should reveal more about quad-core processor designs and plans for mobile and server chips.

Intel's planning its own version of "Quadrophenia" for this week's Intel Developer Forum, except without The Who or any tough, young mods facing off against angry rockers.

Instead of a rock opera, Intel will shed more light on its plans for quad-core processors, company representatives and analysts said. It has already revealed the code names for the server and desktop versions of those chips: Clovertown and Kentsfield. Those models will be constructed by combining Intel's two newest dual-core processors in those categories in a multichip package.

Attendees are also expected to hear more details about Santa Rosa, an updated version of Intel's Centrino package of chips for notebook PCs, scheduled to arrive around March of next year. And the chipmaker's server division will also likely have a few things to talk about, including the Common System Interface architecture that Intel expects to debut in 2008, and possible plans to to third-party co-processors.

Intel holds its developer forums twice a year to educate the hardware developer community on its latest technologies and plans for the future. The chipmaker's CEO, Paul Otellini, is set to deliver the opening keynote address on Tuesday. Other executives, such as labs chief Justin Rattner and server guru Pat Gelsinger, are scheduled to address the crowd of developers, partners and media.

There's a bit of a cloud hanging over the San Francisco event this year, however. Despite all the accolades for Intel's newest generation of Core processors, the Santa Clara, Calif., company has had a tough year. Layoffs, budget cuts and executive shuffling have all taken a toll inside Intel as it adjusts to life with smaller market share. That's why some show veterans are expecting this year's affair to be a bit more subdued than in the past.

After all, Intel already trotted out most of its good stuff this summer, in an attempt to catch up to the performance lead enjoyed by Advanced Micro Devices in the server and desktop markets. It moved up the launch of all three new Core architecture products, such as the Xeon 5100 series server processors, and the Core 2 Duo chips for both desktops and notebooks. It has also revealed an accelerated schedule for presenting new chip architectures, in a bid to avoid getting caught going the wrong way by having more frequent updates to its blueprints.

Also, it seems Intel is less interested these days in providing too detailed a look at its future plans, said Roger Kay, an analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates. "I think they are sensitive right now because of the competitive landscape," he said, noting that AMD's position against Intel has never been stronger.

Four in hand
But attendees will definitely hear new information about Intel's quad-core chips. Enthusiast sites have been reporting that the processor will bear the "Core 2 Quadro" moniker, although Intel representatives have strongly denied that is the name for the upcoming chip. Whatever brand Intel chooses for Kentsfield, the desktop version, it will probably be associated with something expensive, as the initial buyers of Kentsfield should be early adopters willing to pay big bucks for the highest-performing chip on the market.

Chances are, such buyers will have the opportunity to do so in time for the holiday season, according to sources familiar with Intel's plans. The company had already said it will release Kentsfield and Clovertown during the fourth quarter, but sources say it now expects to make sure those chips are available in PCs offered to holiday shoppers. Intel declined to comment on its plans.

The earlier-than-expected arrival of new models might also push the prices of older dual-core chips down Intel's price stack, making for some compelling deals during the all-important holiday shopping season, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64.

On the notebook front, Intel has felt less pressure from AMD. But it still launched two new mobile processors--the Core Duo and the Core 2 Duo--in 2006. The Core 2 Duo chip plugs into the same motherboards used for Core Duo notebooks, and Intel will bring some new technologies to the fore next year with the Santa Rosa platform. These include 802.11n wireless capabilities and improved graphics performance.

Graphics picture
Graphics technology is something that the entire PC industry is looking at a little differently these days, ever since AMD reached an agreement in July to purchase graphics chipmaker ATI Technologies for $5.4 billion. AMD and ATI have announced vague plans to integrate a graphics processor onto a PC processor sometime around 2008, and many are wondering what Intel has up its sleeve in this area.

Over the past few years, Intel has devoted a lot of attention toward the integrated graphics technology in many of its chipsets. This is basic no-frills graphics technology--serious gamers put discrete graphics chips from the likes of ATI and Nvidia in their systems--but integrated graphics are good enough for most PC users.

In a possible foreshadowing of Intel's strategy, the company's latest chipset, the 965G, goes a little bit further than past integrated graphics chipsets with specialized graphics hardware integrated into the chipset, said Dean McCarron, an analyst at Mercury Research.

Intel's integrated graphics strategy over the past several years has been to produce decent but inexpensive graphics hardware, emulating some of the graphics processing tasks in software running on the main central processing unit, McCarron said. But the 965G has a piece of hardware on the chipset dedicated to a specific graphics task--transform and lighting--that lightens the load on the main CPU.

With AMD angling toward incorporating parts of ATI's high-end graphics hardware into future chips, this could become an important differentiating factor in the future.

"To me, it signals that Intel is getting more serious about the performance of its graphics core," McCarron said.

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