You probably haven't noticed any hesitation in your desktop PC--unless, of course, you encode movies for a living or turn your baseball cap around and blast bad guys on the weekends.
Hold onto that cap. Intel and AMD are rolling out new microprocessors that will ratchet up desktop performance another 50 percent to 100 percent or more. How? By adding second calculation engines--or cores--to their chip designs.
Why? Because they can, because they're locked in a death match for processor bragging rights, and because they need to stay way in front of today's software just to make sure they're ready for anything that comes along. The reason you didn't have to think twice before jumping on broadband, digital photography, DVD and MP3 recording, and internet phone calls is that your cute little Volkswagen of a desktop has a Porsche engine inside.
Today's garden-variety PC blows away today's garden-variety office software. But have you noticed how many new applications involve high-quality audio and video, or are loaded with graphics? Take Microsoft's Live Meeting 2005. During the typical web conference, you'll download PowerPoint or video presentations, hop among web pages and spreadsheets, and keep a steady stream of messages flowing between meeting participants.
That's a lot of application threads coming and going. And now that our PCs are connected to the internet 24/7, it's hard to find a PC that isn't multitasking in the foreground and background, says Roger Kay, IDC's vice president of client computing. Try this: Hold down Control-Shift-Escape, and see if you can identify any of the dozens of processes or program pieces running on your PC. "Explorer.exe," maybe?
Intel and AMD are ready to handle the traffic with their multiple calculation engines--initially, dual-core designs like Intel's Pentium Extreme Edition 840 and Pentium D 820, and AMD's Athlon 64 X2 for desktops. When teamed with a multithreading OS like Windows XP or Linux, they can crunch instructions from up to four separate applications simultaneously.
Not as many program threads are left lined up, single file, waiting for their turn at computation. Waiting rooms can be smaller, and more work gets done in the same split second. No, not four times more. But common office applications will run more sprightly; if your workday includes graphics design, video, audio or other particularly calculation-intensive applications, they could get a boost. Future chip generations will do even better, says Kevin Krewell, editor in chief of Scottsdale, Arizona-based In-Stat/MDR's Microprocessor Report.
Cool Under the Collar
"It's the start of the next generation in chip design," says Krewell. "We won't see many frequency increases on PCs, or even servers, going forward."
Krewell's reference is to the traditional way of getting more work from chips by revving up their engines. The current race to dual-core is reminiscent of the Intel/AMD dash to 1GHz clock speeds in 2000. Five years later, frequencies are pushing 4GHz, and high-revving engines are having some unpleasant side effects.
One is excessive power consumption, which only gets exacerbated by the "nanofication" of chip components. Electronic pathways in today's chips are so skinny, they leak electricity and need bulkier power supplies. Also, the ugly twin of high voltage is excess heat, which requires extra room in your PC chassis for heat sinks, fans, liquid-filled pipes and empty air.
Dual-core processors run cooler at faster clock speeds. They aren't the complete answer to the ugly twins, says Krewell--they don't save electricity yet. But they are buying Intel and AMD time to come up with chillier chips.
Coincidentally, a new motherboard standard is helping PC-makers achieve better thermal management in smaller cases, says Chris Zagorski, senior manager of Dell's OptiPlex Product Group. Dell's dual-core OptiPlex GX620 comes in a new, cooler and quieter chassis, some versions of which will fit on the back of an LCD. Workstation-makers like Velocity Micro use an elaborate array of thermal sensors, liquid radiators and multispeed fans to reduce heat and noise.
Whenever there's a generational shift like this, there are two ways for you to benefit. First, dual core marks the start of an extended period during which PC-makers cut single-core PC prices, or toss in extra memory or printers. So far, most programs rewritten for dual core are math- or media-related--Adobe Photoshop, McAfee's VirusScan, Windows Movie Maker. But while you wait for common office applications to be rewritten, enjoy those bargains on single-core PCs that are perfectly fine for most office uses.
If someone in your company is, in fact, involved in graphic arts, software design, engineering or other math-intensive activities, rest assured that any extra dollars paid to adopt dual core early will be recovered in extra productivity. This is an oft-documented phenomenon detailed by Dell.
Long term, the lines between high-bandwidth and average applications will continue to blur as your PC continues to add foreground and background applications. No worries: Processors will continue to be way ahead of that curve.
Know your dual-core processors: Intel's Pentium Extreme Edition 840 and AMD's Opteron Model 275 are for workstations; the Intel Pentium D 820 is for office desktops.
IBM IntelliStation A Pro 6217: Compact workstation with AMD Op-teron Model 275 and up to 16GB memory; starts at $3,259
Dell Optiplex GX620: New motherboard design uses Intel Pentium D 820 with 1MB of L2 cache for each 2.8GHz core; starts at $589 for single core, $779 for dual core
Hewlett-Packard Compaq dc7600 Business Desktop: Pentium D 820 in an ultraslim, thermal-optimized chassis; starts at $699
Velocity Micro ProMagix DCX: Workstation with 3.2GHz Pentium Extreme Edition 840 pushed to 4.0GHz; starts at $2,700
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.