Multi-core processors in the cards for 2007


What a difference a year makes. One year ago, we were dazed, dazzled, and beguiled by the arrival of dual-core processors. Offerings from Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. had analysts, journalists, IT professionals and enthusiasts all gushing with praise for a bright new multitasking future.

Amazingly, both Intel and AMD were able to deliver on the potential of dual-core processing. Throughout 2006, desktop PCs played host to a series of processors that, while slower at the clock-speed level, were faster in real-life usage, allowing for unprecedented amounts of multitasking. (For more about both companies’ current lineups of desktop CPUs, see our CPU Buyer’s Guide.)

As the calendar flips to 2007, we are firmly entrenched in the world of multicore processors. And, based upon the confidential road maps of both Intel and AMD, it is clear that dual-core CPUs are only the launching point for the future of the microprocessor. In 2007, quad cores and even eight-core CPUs will be available. By 2009, there’s a good chance that sixteen-core processors will be on the market.

As we enter 2007, five key questions regarding the pending year’s CPU battle are on our minds:

1. Will AMD be able to continue its dominance in the desktop market?

2. How will Intel capitalize upon the success of Core 2?

3. Will AMD be able to match the success of Intel’s Core 2 processors?

4. When will the market see true quad-core and even eight-core processors?

5. What surprises do the chip makers have up their sleeves?

With all this in mind, we’re taking an extended look at the processors and processor trends you can expect to see in 2007. Not surprisingly, neither AMD nor Intel was willing to divulge many specifics regarding their CPU releases for the coming year. So we scoured the Net, pored over statements from both companies and dug into reports from the host of analysts and experts who cover them.

It’s worth noting that much of the information in this road map is preliminary and code-name-level information. As such, the specifics of the processors could change in coming months.

All secrets are revealed within.

Intel advances

Extensive digging has revealed a good portion of Intel’s plan for increasing desktop market share in the coming year. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the company’s processor road map revolves around the Core microprocessor architecture, formerly code-named “Merom.” One of the smashing success stories of 2006, Core 2 processors offer unparalleled levels of performance per watt of energy consumed and may allow Intel to recapture market share lost to AMD over the past three years. (Core 2 processors are based on the Core architecture; so-called Core processors were based on the company’s previous Pentium 4/M architecture.) In attempt to round out its desktop CPU portfolio in the first half of 2007, Intel will focus on several new processor families based on the Core 2 architecture at all performance levels, including a new value line that uses Core 2 at the Celeron level. Here are the details.

Early 2007 brings new Core 2 processors

At the high-end performance level, Intel will release three new quad-core CPUs at the beginning of the year, dubbed the Core 2 Quad Q6600, Q6400 and Q6300. These three processors will be dual-core, dual-die processors, meaning that they will essentially be two Core 2 processors joined together.

Scheduled for release in the first week of January, the Q6600 will have a clock speed of 2.4 GHz, the Q6400 will have a clock speed of 2.13 GHz, and the Q6300 will operate at 1.86 GHz. Each processor will operate on a 1,066-MHz front-side bus and have 8MB of total Level 2 cache, with 4MB of shared cache on each die. (A large L2 cache allows for faster retrieval of frequently accessed data, thereby speeding up overall system performance.)

In the first half of 2007, Intel will also release a new series of Core 2 Duo processors aimed at the midrange market. These dual-core, single-die processors will reside in the newly introduced Core 2 Duo E4000 series, and the initial release will consist of three CPUs: the 2-GHz E4400, the 1.8-GHz E4300 and the 1.6-GHz E4200.

This category of CPUs will operate on an 800-MHz front-side bus and will likely come with a 2MB shared L2 cache. The E4300 will be the first processor in this family released and could be in desktop PCs as soon as February. It is widely expected that E4000 processors will come with virtualization and 64-bit support. Finally, in an attempt to make significant inroads in the value CPU sector — one that has traditionally been dominated by AMD — Intel is trickling its Core 2 CPU line down to the low-cost market. Intel has not yet made it clear whether these processors will be single-core versions of the Core 2 Duo or dual-core chips with one core disabled.

In the second quarter, Intel plans to release a number of processors in this value category. Around this same time, the chipmaker will probably phase out the Pentium 600 series, specifically the Pentium 4 651, 641 and 631.

To avoid confusing CPU buyers, Intel will use the Pentium and Celeron brand names for these new CPUs, even though they are based on the Core architecture.

In the Pentium bracket, we’ll see releases of the E1060, E1040 and E1020. The E1060 will have a clock speed of 1.8 GHz, the E1040 will run at 1.6 GHz, and the E1040 will run at 1.4 GHz. Each will have 1MB of L2 cache with a front-side bus speed of 800 MHz. While these processors will support Intel’s 64-bit extensions, none of the E1000 line will support virtualization or hyperthreading, a technology that allows single-core CPUs to behave as if they were dual-core ones.

In the Celeron bracket, CPU buyers will likely see a wide range of clock speeds. At press time, no specific model numbers or clock speeds were available, but it appears that the name of this series of processors will be the Celeron 400 series and that these processors will have 512KB of L2 cache. It is not clear whether or not these processors will support 64-bit extensions, virtualization or HyperThreading.

‘Bearlake’ chip set boosts front-side bus speeds

As Intel shifts to multicore processing, the bus speed becomes a more pressing concern because of the increased volume of data traffic generated by separate CPU cores. The front-side bus (FSB) is the primary channel of data communication between the CPU and other devices on the system, such as RAM and hard drives. It’s essentially a single-lane highway with limited bandwidth. As CPU manufacturers stack more processing cores onto a single processor, the risk that this data channel will become full increases, hence the need for faster FSB speeds.

Thus, one of the most significant releases Intel will make in 2007 is a brand-new chip set foundation code-named “Bearlake.” This chip set is the successor to the 975X chip set and will feature a number of upgrades and improvements. The P35 Express will be released first in the second quarter of 2007 and will feature two key upgrades: an all-new 1,333-MHz FSB and support for DDR2-800 and DDR3-1066 memory.

Intel recently announced official names for the first wave of Bearlake chip sets. The G35 and G33 monikers will be attached to mainstream consumer desktop chip sets. The G35 chip set will feature an integrated DirectX 10-compatible graphics processor.

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