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New PC platforms from Intel will face hurdles

Intel shows off Skulltrail and X48 chipsets

A Skulltrail-based Alienware. We've seen a lot of these new Alienware designs at CES. CNET

Intel had three different high-end PCs to show us at the show this morning. Two were based on its forthcoming dual-quad-core enthusiast motherboard, code-named Skulltrail. The other was based on Intel's X48 chipset, which is the 1,600MHz front side bus version of X38, which itself came out last November to coincide with Intel's new Core 2 Quad 9000-series chips. We were suitably impressed at the benchmarks Intel ran for us, as well as the overclocking and cooling of each.

The problem is that each platform is going to be a hard sell, as they're dependent on other technologies to help them achieve their full potential, and that synergy is proving difficult in both cases. Skulltrail especially.

Skulltrail's dependency is software. It's only now that we're starting to see games and other applications take full advantage of quad-core CPUs. But because Flight Simulator X is the only title out right now with eight-core support, we have a hard time believing that the truly hardcore gamers will be willing to drop the $6,000 or $7,000 on a decked-out Skulltrail system (a ballpark figure, but likely charitable). Intel points out that you don't need to populate both CPU slots, and that you can always upgrade later. But at the end of this year we expect to see Intel's next-gen Nehalem CPUs, which could very well include a standalone eight-core model. At that point, dual-quad-core becomes tough to justify. Digital media professionals might be able to make a case for Skulltrail as they have more applications on hand that will actually use eight cores. Gamers will be better off waiting until the software catches up, but by then they'll likely have newer hardware to choose from.

A DIY Skulltrail system, overclocked and fan-cooled. CNET

X48's problem is less difficult. The basic problem is that Nvidia mostly keeps its dual graphics card SLI technology to itself. That leaves Intel with ATI's CrossFire, which is a fine competitor to SLI technologically, but ATI hasn't released fast enough Radeon graphics cards to compete with the highest-end GeForces from Nvidia. Thus, the best pair of 3D cards from Nvidia will always beat the best pair from ATI, at least today.

We hear R680, code for a forthcoming high-end graphics chip from ATI, will bring ATI back to high-end competition. But until that happens (and assuming Nvidia makes no similar updates, a bet we wouldn't take), any desktop based on Intel's X48 chipset will only be able to compete on CPU speed. It will always lose out on 3D power because right now Crossfire can't compete with SLI on the high-end. Skulltrail, for its part, doesn't have that issue, because Intel was able to make it both SLI and Crossfire capable.

While Intel's high-end platforms have some hurdles to overcome, we still saw some things we liked. Although it requires two fans and a 1,200-watt power supply, the Skulltrail system interior we saw looked relatively tidy, a vast improvement over QuadFX, AMD's nonstarter 2x-dual-core platform from 2006. We were also impressed to see Skulltrail overclocked to 4.0GHz (default is 3.2GHz) and remain passively cooled in a system running two midrange ATI cards. The Nvidia version, with two 8800 GTX cards, was also overclocked, but required liquid cooling.