PC players double down on processing

Except in the Macintosh world, dual-processor desktop computers are rare today — but expect that to change by next year. With Intel Corp.’s announcement that it is speeding up work on dual-core chips, which effectively put two processors in a single package, the double-barreled PC is

about to become more common.

In early May, Intel revealed that it has accelerated its schedule for adding dual-core microprocessors to its product line. Doug Cooper, country manager for Intel of Canada in Toronto, said the chips will come to market some time in 2005.

A dual-core design has the equivalent of two separate processors built together on a single chip. A key reason for taking this approach is that a dual-core chip will use less power and generate less heat than a single-core one that delivers comparable performance, Cooper said.

Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices, Inc., fired back in mid-June by announcing that it has completed design work on its AMD64 dual-core processors, plans for which were first discussed publicly in 1999. AMD said it expects to deliver the chips for servers by mid-2005 and for desktop PCs by late next year.

Dean McCarron, president and principal analyst at Mercury Research in Cave Creek, Ariz., said Intel is pushing ahead with its dual-core chip development faster than previously planned because the company needed a way to increase processing power without driving up the cost, power consumption and heat dissipation of its chips. “”What Intel had found was that if they kept going down the uniprocessor path, that they were going to start running up against these limits,”” he said.

Another reason for the decision, according to Cooper, is that the Windows 2000 and XP operating systems increased support for multiprocessing, meaning they can take advantage of machines with two or more processors.

Intel has already been capitalizing on that support with hyperthreading, a trick that makes a single processor look like two processors to the software running on it. Intel realized that “”there were times in the pipeline when you could actually sneak in another thread and actually gain 25 per cent or more in performance,”” Cooper said. “”Substantially all”” of Intel’s current processor line supports hyperthreading, he added, and any PC running Windows XP can take advantage of it.

Today, the only dual- and multi-processor systems in the Windows world are servers, specialized workstations designed for computer-aided design and other power-hungry applications, and a few machines from small manufacturers aimed at well-heeled gamers who want the fastest possible hardware to supercharge their games.

Apple Computer Inc., on the other hand, embraced dual-processor desktop PC designs several years ago. “”Our operating system has had support for it for at least six or seven years,”” said Willi Powell, strategic development manager at Apple Canada in Markham, Ont., “”but really now it’s coming into its own.””

With a refresh of Apple’s Power Macintosh G5 line announced this week, all the G5 machines now use dual PowerPC G5 processors. Powell said Apple has also offered previous machines with dual-processor designs.

Apple turned to putting two processors in one machine to boost power, Powell said. “”We’re putting the most powerful processor available to us in the box, so the way you can double your capacity is to add another processor.””

Powell said Apple’s dual-processor machines are sold to a wide range of the company’s customers, including buyers in its “”core constituencies”” of creative design and scientific research users. He expects them to become more mainstream in the future — “”our customers always want more speed.””

Neither Dell Computer Corp. nor Hewlett-Packard Co. — the two biggest desktop computer manufacturers — would comment on their plans for dual-core machines, and Cooper said it is too early to predict when the first products based on Intel’s new dual-core chips will appear. But McCarron is predicting that by around the end of 2006, most high-end PCs based on Intel chips will likely use dual-core technology. And the dual-core chips will then spread through PC product lines. “”With any new product it would get introduced at the top of the market,”” Cooper said, but over time “”these are going to be aimed at more of a mainstream desktop market.””

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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