The New Chips on the Block
By Bruce Gain
Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/infostructure/0,1377,67795,00.html
02:00 AM Jun. 13, 2005 PT
We have embarked upon a new era in x86 PC computing -- so say chip giants AMD and Intel following their launches of dual-core PC processors. So how will dual-core processing change your PC computing experience? Our FAQ should help you decide whether or when you should make the leap.
What is a dual-core chip?
A dual-core processor differs from a single-core chip in that it has two physical computer processing unit, or CPU, cores on a single die. So when you buy a PC with an Intel or AMD dual-core processor, the CPU architecture will have two processor cores bridged together with electronics circuitry.
How do dual-core designs differ from traditional CPU designs?
Dual-core processing is based on parallelism, which involves increasing PC performance by relying on more than one processor core for computing tasks. Boosting processor performance has traditionally meant power consumption has risen proportionally with increasingly more powerful and smaller circuitry sizes -- which are now as small as 90 nanometers. Increased power consumption means more fans are needed for cooling, and fan noises can increase to unacceptable levels (unless liquid cooling is used, but that alternative requires know-how and time most users don't have).
By relying on parallelism, dual-core chips help to solve the heat dilemma. They do this by sharing the computing load among more than one processor. Computing performance is increased without having to rely on increasingly more powerful -- and hot -- single-core processors.
What are the advantages of a dual-core chip? Are there any disadvantages?
Applications can harness the power of two processor cores instead of one. The major downside at this time is that most software applications cannot yet take advantage of a dual-core processor design. You will probably have to wait awhile before your favorite game, office application or other software program can harness the power of a dual-core design.
However, a dual-core processor can accommodate more applications and tasks running simultaneously -- clicking at the bottom right-hand side of your Windows screen will give you an inkling of the many programs running in the background as you read this article. This means that sharing the computing load among two cores instead of one can help prevent glitches and a slowdown in your PC's performance while running several intensive programs. For instance, the positive effect might be noticeable while you have dozens of web page, a word processor, e-mail, a video editing application and Adobe windows open with a Winamp video playing in the background without any perceptible performance loss.
Will PCs with dual-core chips run software designed for older chips?
Dual-core chips will indeed run software designed for older chips. The real issue is how long it will be before PCs can run applications that harness the true power of dual-core processors, which mostly depends on software developers.
Will dual-core devices cost more than traditional chips?
Dual-core devices, at least in the beginning stages of their rollout, will certainly cost a lot more than most single core processors. On the high end of the dual-core scale, AMD's dual-core Athlon 64 X2 4800+ retails for more than $1,000. Intel's 3.2-GHz Pentium D 840 also costs more than $1,000, although less expensive versions of both processors exist. You can easily pay well over $4,000 for a dual-core CPU PC.
Does the arrival of dual-core chips mean my old PC is hopelessly outdated?
The real measure of whether it is time to replace your CPU or PC is whether your processor's clock speed is up to tasks you want your PC to perform -- presently, that has nothing to do with dual-core architectures. And in some cases, you can even lose performance if you opt for a dual-core processor with a clock speed inferior to that of a single-core device -- Intel's fastest dual-core processor clock speed peaks out at 3.2 GHz while you can buy a single a 3.8-GHz Pentium 4 570 that has a single core.
What factors should I consider when evaluating whether I should upgrade?
You might want to upgrade when and if you want to run applications that were written to take advantage of dual-core processor architectures. A dual-core architecture can also help prevent a performance slowdown because too many computationally intensive programs are running at once.
But don't expect to see any benefit when running typical e-mail and office applications, surfing the web or playing even the most CPU intensive 3-D game. Of course, those who equate the most expensive with the best of the best may want to spend more than $5,000 for the fastest and greatest dual-core equipped PC with the most powerful graphics card, memory and hard disk trimmings.
What is the overlap with 64-bit computing? There are not many similarities between dual-core processors and 64-bit CPUs, which are able to process 64 instead of 32 bits of data. Touted as the next best thing, 64-bit CPUs, as well as dual-core processors, mostly require applications that are not launched yet to take advantage of their true power.
Can I swap a new dual-core chip into my current PC?
For the most part, new hardware is required if you want to switch your existing processor with a dual-core device. However, you can add AMD's dual-core processor to AMD socket 939 motherboards and Intel's dual-core device to certain LGA775 motherboards.
Do I need to be aware of any hardware compatibility issues?
Never say never with different motherboard vendors and potential BIOS (or basic input output system) glitches. But at least in theory, new dual-core processors should not pose problems if you add them to a compatible motherboard. The shift to a dual-core PC should also not cause problems with your existing peripherals, such as printers, cameras or other devices.
When can I expect to see PCs based on dual-core chips?
Intel says you can buy dual-core PCs from Alienware, Dell, Velocity Micro and Falcon Northwest. Lenovo offers PCs with dual-core AMD processors now followed by Acer, Alienware and HP in a few months, AMD said.
Does dual-core processing mean the end of Moore's Law?
Moore's Law, coined by Intel founder Gordon Moore 40 years ago, should hold true. According to Intel's road map, Intel will continue to double its processors' transistor count every 18 months or so for the foreseeable future -- as Moore's Law stipulates. The only difference will be that Intel will no longer pack millions of transistors on a single processing core as the devices shrink down to a 22-nm size in a few years.
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