In their battle for bragging rights, Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are racing ahead of their customers. Businesses are just beginning to buy computers with dual-core chips, and there's little software tuned for the new systems. Already, however, Intel and AMD are rushing to the next milestone: quad-core microprocessors.
For Intel, being first with a quad-core chip is a chance to regain a technology leadership role that it seems to have lost--along with market share--to AMD in recent years. For AMD, the new battleground will show whether it can continue to outmaneuver its larger rival.
Intel next month will release the quad-core QX6700, a new entrant in its Extreme line for gamers and enthusiasts. Each core will run at 2.66 GHz. Intel promises a quad version of its new Woodcrest Xeon 5300 for servers before year's end. Intel execs aren't talking clock speed yet, but they do say the first devices will run about 10% slower than the existing Xeon 5300, so the quad-core processor doesn't throw off more heat.
Intel is entering the market quickly by taking two dual-core processors and "bolting" them together to create a multichip module. AMD plans to deliver its first quad-core processors around mid-2007. It's designing a monolithic quad-core processor in which all four cores reside within a single silicon die.
The proof isn't in the packaging, Otellini says
That said, the multichip module works in Intel's favor, Otellini argues. It lets Intel get to market faster and at lower manufacturing cost than if it had pursued a monolithic quad-core chip design, with yields that are 20% better than a monolithic approach.
AMD says the bigger issue is power and heat. AMD's quad-core chips will maintain their dual-core power levels of 120 watts, 95 watts, and 68 watts. In contrast, Intel's multichip module approach will consume more power and generate more heat, says John Fruehe, worldwide business development manager at AMD. He points out that Intel's quad-core server chips will push current dual-core power levels of 80 watts, 65 watts, and 40 watts to 120 watts, 80 watts, and 50 watts.
"Intel claims it's maintaining the 80-watt power level, but it's asking customers to move from high-performance to mid-performance to maintain that thermal level," he says.
Either approach to increasing cores on a chip is legitimate, says Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64. Customers will make buying decisions based on price and performance. "Intel is getting the jump, but if AMD's quad-core is faster and consumes less energy, it could eventually be a market winner," Brookwood says.
By the time AMD gets to market, Intel estimates it already will have shipped more than 1 million quad-core processors. Of course, shipping them to computer makers isn't the same as businesses buying quad-core systems.
In the meantime, Intel is trying to nudge its slow-selling, high-end 64-bit Itanium processor. The company has quietly begun to offer its own "white box" Itanium-based servers to server manufacturers, which can put their own labels on the systems. Itanium has been gaining traction as an alternative to IBM's Power and Sun Microsystems' Sparc chips; the introduction of dual-core Itaniums is expected to help.
Still, Itanium was a break with the industry-standard x86 chip design and shows what can happen when chipmakers get too far ahead of computer buyers. As Intel and AMD rush their quad-core designs to market, they should keep that lesson in mind. Because history does have a way of repeating itself.