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Dual-core processors

Posted by: , 14:20 AEDT, Tue December 27, 2005
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For years, chipmakers improved chips by increasing clock speeds. But physics and engineering problems put a stop to that approach as designers struggled to deliver sufficient electricity to power and cool the chips. The result: a course correction toward multicore processors that get more work done but at lower clock frequencies.

It's a move that began in 2001 with IBM's Power4. But this year, x86 chips from Advanced Micro Devices and Intel arrived in PCs and mainstream servers.

Intel initially asserted the push to dual-core chips "is not a race." But it eagerly trumpeted the arrival of its dual-core desktop chips in April. And by October, Intel hustled its first dual-core server chip to market, releasing a dual-processor server version of the "Paxville" chip that was originally designed just for four-processor machines.

AMD, though, had planned for dual-core designs much earlier in the development of its Athlon PC chip and its server-oriented Opteron sibling. It beat Intel to the server market handily with dual-core Opterons in April--significant given that server software, already designed to run on multiple processors, is much better suited to multicore chips than desktop software.

The Intel-AMD rivalry took a legal turn in June when AMD filed an antitrust suit against Intel.

Apple Computer dropped a bombshell in June, announcing that it would switch to Intel's Pentium. The move required extensive software changes, but Apple said IBM's PowerPC processors just weren't meeting the company's needs.

Apple's transition will be gradual though. The company's newest G5 models went dual-core in October with the latest IBM PowerPC 970.

For Itanium, the dual-core news wasn't good. In October, Intel delayed its first dual-core Itanium model, "Montecito," from 2005 until mid-2006. Its successors, Montvale and Tukwila, also were pushed out a year to 2007 and 2008, respectively.

There were also executive changes at Intel in 2005, as President Paul Otellini replaced Craig Barrett as chief executive. Even before taking the reins, Otellini launched an Intel reorganization in January that grouped processors with chipsets and other related technology components into "platforms." The company announced one of the first examples of the change in August, unveiling the Viiv brand for entertainment PCs.

AMD also won another battle against Intel: lower power consumption. Its Opterons draw 95 watts compared with a range of 110 watts to 165 watts for Xeon. But Intel has a response in the works: a power-conscious next-generation architecture based on its Pentium M line for mobile PCs. That design will emerge in desktop computers and servers in 2006.

Sun Microsystems, after years of processor products even the company admits were uninspiring, made major changes in 2005. In September, it announced its "Galaxy" line of Opteron servers, the company's first major in-house x86 server designs. And in December, Sun introduced servers using its ambitious UltraSparc T1 "Niagara" processor.

Niagara has no fewer than eight cores, each able to process four instruction sequences called threads, and Sun is banking that it will endow its UltraSparc line not merely with relevance, but glory.

One of Sun's biggest competitors, IBM's Power family, got a new member in October with the Power5+. But for another major rival, May marked the end of an era as Hewlett-Packard introduced the final member of its PA-RISC chip family. Credit: CNet News


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