PC Platforms: Looking Back at 2006 and Ahead to 2007

Feature: It's been a banner year for processors, chip sets, and memory. We take a look at 2006, and then gaze into our crystal ball to try to predict what will happen in 2007. (ExtremeTech)

Consider the desktop personal computer. Form factors have changed, new CPUs have emerged, and more-advanced chip sets have arrived on the scene, but the fundamental PC platform remains little changed. You still have core logic, a CPU, separate memory, and an underlying system board. Its true that AMD moves the memory controller onto the CPU, but that alters the overall balance only slightly. Even so, the PC platform is evolving, and the PC of 2008 may look quite different from todays familiar, boxy unit.

Processors and chip sets are becoming increasingly intertwined, though Intels dream of tightly coupled chip sets and CPUs hasnt taken root yet. Most of the synergy between processors and chip sets has been marketing. This past year has been a busy one for the PC platform, but 2007 looks to be more of a transition year for PC hardware, as Vista emerges to shape the future of personal computer hardware.

Lets take a look at what happened in 2006 with the fundamental PC platform and then try to forecast what will happen in 2007.

As 2006 began, AMD fired the opening salvo in the PC wars, launching the Athlon 64 FX-60. The FX-60 was the first dual-core Athlon 64 to sport the FX moniker—nomenclature reserved for the cream of AMDs CPU crop. Clocking at 2.6GHz, the FX-60s presence was the harbinger of a time when mainstream and high-end CPUs would sport more than one core, with single-core CPUs relegated to the low end.

The FX-60 easily outperformed any Intel CPU existing at the time. It even outpaced Intels Pentium Extreme Edition 965, although that chip clocked in at over a gigahertz higher than the FX-60.

The old NetBurst architecture was clearly at its last gasp, because of Intels inability to hit the higher clock frequencies that the company had predicted only a year earlier.

As spring rolled into summer, information began to dribble out about the next generation of Intel processors, including early performance numbers for the new CPUs, dubbed Core 2 Duo. The improvement over the Pentium line—and even the Athlon 64 X2 line—was so startling, it was hard to believe at first.

AMD had its own performance update prior to the official launch of Core 2 Duo, shipping the Socket AM2 line of CPUs, including the 2.8GHz Athlon 64 FX-62. AM2 CPUs used a new, 940-pin socket and now supported DDR2/800 memory. But the response from performance enthusiasts was surprisingly tepid, probably because of all the excitement surrounding Intels upcoming launch.

Intel dispelled most of the suspense in July, finally launching the Core 2 Duo, including the high-end, multiplier-unlocked Core 2 Extreme X6800 (officially 2.93GHz), and the mainstream E6700, E6600, E6400, and E6300 parts. The performance differences between the new generation and previous generation were stunning, even as the overall power draw dropped by 30 percent to 50 percent. Even the previous bastion of AMD CPUs—PC gaming performance—fell, and AMDs hegemony passed to Intel.

In fact, Intels new CPUs took the performance crown, top to bottom, in our Core 2 versus AM2 performance shootout. The tables, at least as far as performance, had completely turned, and AMDs only answer looked to be steep price cuts.

AMD hasnt gone down without a fight, however. In the mainstream, AMD had a major design win, with Dell finally shipping non-Intel solutions for the first time. At the high end, AMD began discussing a technology dubbed 4x4, which eventually launched as the Quad FX in November. AMD also noticed that Intels Core 2 power draw at idle was still higher than AMDs CPUs, so it began suggesting that in normal use, Athlon 64 X2s were still more power efficient.

Despite these efforts, the Intel juggernaut kept rolling along, with Intels announcement of its Core 2 Extreme QX6700, the first single-socket, quad-core CPU for desktop PCs. The QX6700 was simply two Core 2 dies grafted into a single CPU package, but performance on key multithreaded applications simply added insult to injury in comparisons with AMD. Quad FX has closed the performance gap a bit, but that platform is substantially more complex and costly than Intels.

In late summer, Intel also shipped the mobile version of Core 2 Duo. While performance is quite good, the improvement over previous mobile CPUs wasnt quite as great, since Core 2 Duo was built on the foundation laid by earlier Intel mobile CPU technology, including the Pentium M and Core Duo.

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