The race is on to produce four-core processors for PCs.
Intel Corp., which is readying a bevy of dual-core chips for release in systems in the next month, is already plotting a move to quad cores, which some reports have said could come as soon as early 2007.
Thus the two main PC processor manufacturers, Intel and its rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc., appear to be working toward the same goal of doubling the number of cores their processors can offer customers during 2007.
AMD has already discussed a plan to begin offering a family of four-core chips in 2007, whereas Intel has only broadly hinted about offering a four- core server chip the same year.
While the chip makers once battled over clock speed—in one form or another—the coming years will bring a new rivalry. Intel and AMD will trade barbs over who can offer chips with more processor cores sooner with better performance per watt, or how much power each chip consumes versus the amount of performance it offers customers.
AMD was the first to offer a dual- core x86 chip, launching a dual-core Opteron server chip last April, while Intel was first to offer dual-core desktop chips.
Intel appears headed toward offering the first dual-core notebook chip in Yonah, a new version of its Pentium M that is expected in January.
While Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., has described publicly a quad-core server chip—a processor called Tigerton, which it will offer for servers in 2007—it may hit that mark first by packaging two dual-core chips together.
This is similar to the way Intel created its first dual-core Pentiums—like its Pentium D—by packaging two Pentium 4 chips together, according to a recent report by the Web site, Toms Hardware.
Packaging Chips Together
Presler, the follow-on Pentium D processor, is an integrated design, meaning the chip was designed to have two processor cores on board. That new chip is expected to arrive shortly in desktop PCs.
Analysts said that placing two chips into a package—dubbed an MCM or multi-chip module —would be a relatively simple and quick way for Intel to offer a four-core chip for a machine such as a desktop PC. Intel could then follow up with an integrated four-core processor later.
Using multi-core packages “is certainly a viable strategy,” said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research Inc. in Cave Creek, Ariz.
In fact, “Going forward, Id expect that kind of product to appear and disappear as the number of cores increases” in chips by companies like Intel.
Two things will help make the jump to four cores possible for Intel.
One is manufacturing technology. The company has already begun shipping chips based on a new 65-nanometer manufacturing process for revenue. Over time, it will move its PC processors to the new manufacturing process from its current 90-nanometer process. Such transitions generally help improve chip performance and cut power consumption.
Intel will also move to a new, less power hungry chip architecture in the second half of 2006.
The company plans to use the architecture on top of its 65-nanometer manufacturing process to create numerous dual-core chips for desktops, notebooks and servers during the latter half of 2006. Among the first will be Merom, a chip for notebooks, Conroe for desktops and Woodcrest for servers.
Placing two of these new architecture chips together in a package could indeed yield the first four-core PC chips, another analyst said.
“The next generation micro architecture is based on Yonah and its going to be a much smaller die than Netburst parts [chips such as the Pentium 4 and Presler] so putting two of those together [in a package] would be doable,” said Kevin Krewell, editor-in-chief of the Microprocessor Report in San Jose, Calif.
Krewell, who said he was not privy to Intels plans, said, “It would give them an interesting Extreme Edition part or something they could push” for other performance applications.
Still, “The question you have to ask is, Whats the point?” he said. “Were just barely getting to the point where you can get a two-way system that makes sense in terms of client software.”
However, Krewell said that a quad-core chip could be a boon for one of Intels newest clients: Apple Computer Inc.
“Certainly a customer like Apple would be interested in offering an upgrade from the existing PowerPC-based Macs and an eight-way [using twin four-core chips] would certainly one-up a four-way PowerPC,” which uses twin dual-core chips.
Following a logical progression, eight-core PC processors may become possible with the next generation of manufacturing technology, 45-nanometers, which Intel expects to begin rolling out some time in 2007. Other chip makers, including AMD, are also eyeing similar transitions of their own.
But Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD is also planning for quads, having said recently that it aims to roll out a four-core-capable processor family during 2007.
The new chip family, it said, will result in a wide range of four-core processors, for desktops, notebooks and servers. The server chip will have the ability to fit into machines with as many as 32 processors, AMD said.
AMD aims to use its ability to step up on processor cores in 2007 —along with its move to a new processor architecture around 2008 or 2009—as a means to maintain what it sees as a technical lead over Intel, while fostering a growth rate thats at least twice the market average, company executives said in a November meeting for analysts.
However, AMD will actually arrive at quad cores in two ways. First, it will extend its current architecture, which is already offering dual cores, to four. Later in the decade, the company said it would switch to an all-new processor architecture.
That new AMD circuitry, which will also breed quad-core chips in the 2008 to 2009 time frame, will offer more capabilities to scale upwards into big servers, AMD has indicated.
An Intel spokesperson declined to comment for this story.