Beyond dual-core: 2007 desktop CPU road

Dual-core processors are now being deployed in the enterprise but quad-core desktops are already making their appearance.

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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 and Advanced Micro Devices 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.

As the calendar flips to 2007, we are firmly entrenched in the world of multicore processors. And, based upon the confidential roadmaps 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 is a good chance that 16-core processors will be on the market.

As we enter 2007, five key questions regarding this year's CPU battle are pertinent:

  • Will AMD be able to continue its dominance in the desktop market?
  • How will Intel capitalise on the success of Core 2?
  • Will AMD be able to match the success of Intel's Core 2 processors?
  • When will the market see true quad-core and even eight-core processors?
  • What surprises do the chip makers have up their sleeves?

With all this in mind, let us take an extended look at the processors and processor trends we 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 Computerworld has scoured the internet, pored over statements from both companies and dug into reports from the host of analysts and experts who cover them.

It is worth noting that much of this information is preliminary, codename-level information. As such, the specifics of the processors could change in coming months.

Intel advances

Extensive digging has revealed a good portion of Intel's plan for increasing its desktop market share in the coming year. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the company's processor roadmap revolves around the Core microprocessor architecture, formerly codenamed "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, while so-called Core processors were based on the company's previous Pentium 4/M architecture.)

In an 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 Core2 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 2.4GHz, the Q6400 will have a clock speed of 2.13GHz, and the Q6300 will operate at 1.86GHz. 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 2GHz E4400, the 1.8GHz E4300 and the 1.6GHz E4200.

This category of CPUs will operate on an 800MHz front-side bus and are likely to 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 virtualisation 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 chip maker 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 will see releases of the E1060, E1040 and E1020. The E1060 will have a clock speed of 1.8GHz, the E1040 will run at 1.6GHz, and the E1040 will run at 1.4GHz. Each will have 1MB of L2 cache with a front-side bus speed of 800MHz. While these processors will support Intel's 64-bit extensions, none of the E1000 line will support virtualisation or hyperthreading, a technology that allows single-core CPUs to behave as if they were dual-core ones.

In the Celeron bracket, CPU buyers are likely to see a wide range of clock speeds. At the time of going to press, 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, virtualisation or hyperthreading.

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