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Quad-Core Processor Buyer's Guide 2007

With Intel's Core 2 Quad family here, and AMD's Phenom desktop quad-core chips coming later this year, here's a handy guide to processor choices and specs, as well as hints on where to find bargains.

Quad core processing is now officially bargain country. On July 22, deep price cuts from Intel took effect, slashing the baggage for many of the chip giant's new four-way devices to less than what you used to have to fork over for a high-end dual-core part.

Four On The Floor

   Image Gallery

Your purchasing leverage is only going to increase in the coming months. That's because AMD hasn't released any quad-core parts yet--Intel has more than 20--and is under pressure to succeed when it finally does ship. Fortunately for buyers, that should translate into highly competitive pricing when AMD's Barcelona server quad core is released in August and the company's Phenom desktop processors follows by the end of the year.

Indeed, since the cost of dual-core chips from both Intel and AMD has come down in tandem with Intel's quad pricing moves, the only real question is: Do you want to pay a little bit more for the ultimate in performance, or would you rather snap up a real dual-core bargain?

On the practical front, the trick for individuals looking to buy--as opposed to OEMs who have access to the latest chips and best deals from distributors--is that prices and availability may differ significantly from what manufacturers' announcements may have let you to believe. For example, processor street prices at the online vendors popular with individual system builders--such as TigerDirect, NewEgg, Frys--often differ from Intel's list prices. For most chips, that difference is usually to the buyer's advantage, from a measly $10 to as much as $100 or more. However, it's the reverse case for the one or two hottest processors, which are usually selling for more than Intel's posted price sheet.

What's Available?

Intel offers six quad-core desktop chips, as part of its Core 2 Quad and Core 2 Extreme families. (We'll provide detailed specs, below.) On the server side, Intel ships some 19 quad-core Xeons, in its 5300, low-voltage 5300, and 7300 series.

Here are price comparisons for all currently available desktop and server quad-core parts. Click on each image to see an enlarged, readable table:

With six desktop offerings, there's no dearth of quad-core options.
 Xeon has embraced quad in a big way, with 19 SKUs.

(click image for larger view)

With six desktop offerings, there's no dearth of quad-core options.

view the image gallery

(click image for larger view)

Xeon has embraced quad in a big way, with 19 SKUs.

view the image gallery

When it comes to four-way chips, Intel is relying on its perhaps confusingly named "Core" architecture, while AMD has chosen the even less euphonious identifier "10h." Core as a micro-architectural moniker is not all that difficult to keep separate from the word's normal usage. However, there are cases where it can be a mouthful. Try saying "Intel's Core architecture Core 2 Extreme QX6850 quad-core" three times fast.

Nevertheless, Core merits attention because Intel expects to have all its processors upgraded to use the new design by the end of 2007. This includes all single- and dual-core chips, as well as well as the higher-profile quads. The defining characteristic f Core is a feature called wide-dynamic execution. This means that Core chips can carry out more instructions per clock cycle than could the earlier Netburst architecture, which powered the Pentium 4.

Core make the move to Intel's new 45-nanometer chip technology before the year is out. On trap for release is the "Yorkfield" desktop quad and the "Harpertown" server processor. Further afield, Intel is readying an next-generation micro-architecture code-named Nehalem. It'll also be on 45-nm and is scheduled to debut in 2008.

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