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Intel: Quad core to turbocharge chips

PC performance to rise 70 percent for some applications, company says--but power consumption rises, too.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--PC performance will increase 70 percent for some applications with Intel's new "Kentsfield" quad-core processor coming in November, company executives said Tuesday.

The performance jump compares the 130-watt, 2.66GHz Kentsfield, to be called the Core 2 Extreme QX6700, with the current speed champ, the 80-watt, 2.93GHz dual-core Core 2 Extreme X6800, said Steve Smith, director of group operations in Intel's Digital Enterprise Group, in a briefing here at the Intel Developer Forum.

In addition, the quad-core "Clovertown" processor for servers, to be called the Xeon 5300 and also scheduled to arrive in November, will be about 50 percent faster than the current "Woodcrest" Xeon 5100 at the same 80-watt power level, Smith said. The performance improvement was measured with a test of integer-processing speed.

Intel is eager to tout its quad-core models, which are arriving months earlier than comparable products from rival Advanced Micro Devices. That's a change from 2005, when the companies were neck-in-neck delivering dual-core chips, but Intel representatives insisted "it's not a race."

The companies are employing very different strategies in their move to quad-core. AMD's models, due to arrive in mid-2007, will have four processing cores on a single slice of silicon.

In comparison, Intel combines two dual-core chips in a single package that plugs into a single chip socket. Kentsfield uses two Conroe chips, and Clovertown uses two Woodcrest chips, for example.

"The advantage we have by the approach we have is being first," Smith said. "We expect to ship very large volumes of quad-core in servers before we expect our competitors to ship any."

Smith argued that there are advantages besides time-to-market with Intel's multichip package approach. For one thing, the company can use the same chips for either dual-core or quad-core products, making it easier to match its product mix to market demands. And its yields--the fraction of usable chips that can be carved from each silicon wafer--are higher.

"We have over a 20 percent increase in good quad cores per wafer by picking the two-die multichip package approach," Smith said. "That translates into cost savings for Intel of at least 10 percent in manufacturing cost."

AMD sees things differently. Intel's approach means heating problems, computer communication bottlenecks and overly complex product road maps, said John Fruehe, worldwide business development manager for Opteron, the company's rival to Intel's Xeon line.

When it comes to electrical power, for example, Woodcrest chips that consume 65 watts turn into 80-watt Clovertown models, and 80-watt Woodcrests become 120-watt Clovertowns. Intel may prefer to compare the two 80-watt models, but customers see things differently, he said: "Most customers buying in the high bin today are going to continue to go with the high bin."

Intel plans future quad-core models that consume less power. In the first quarter of 2007, Intel will release mainstream Kentsfield chips, called Core 2 Quad, that consume 105 watts. And in "early 2007" will come 50-watt Clovertowns, Smith added.

In addition, Intel will release a quad-core chip for single-processor servers in the first half of 2007, Smith said.

Intel's manufacturing technology today can produce circuitry elements measuring 65 nanometers, but the company in 2007 will move to a 45-nanometer process that will mean more electronics on a single chip. Intel will sell quad-core chips built with the 45-nanometer process using both the multichip and monolithic single-chip approach, Smith said in an interview.

Adding new processor cores may sound like an easy way to boost PC performance, but software must be able to take advantage of it for customers to actually benefit. Server software often already works well on multicore and multiprocessor computers, with programs already "multithreaded" to run in independent pieces, but Intel is working on coaxing programmers of desktop software to follow suit.

"The application base motivates people to either value (quad-core chips) or not. If you're doing media or content creation, it's a fantastic product, and we'll see very rapid adoption. But if you look at mainstream business PCs, it may be some time before you see the benefits there," Smith said.

It's an important issue: Software that isn't multithreaded can sometimes run more slowly on chips with more cores. To avoid problems from higher power consumption, quad-core chips typically run at a clock speed about 10 percent slower than their dual-core brethren, Smith said.

Intel's Extreme chip products are aimed at hard-core gamers who want every smidgen of performance, and game producers are working to adapt their software. One such company is Remedy, which demonstrated a game called "Alan Wake" at the Intel show.

The game is designed to farm tasks to different processor cores, said Markus Maki, director of development, in an interview. There are three major program threads and each can occupy a core of its own: one for the main game action, one for simulating physics of game objects and one for preparing terrain information that's later sent to the graphics chip for rendering. A fourth core can handle other threads, including playing sound and retrieving data from a DVD, Maki said.