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12:25 PM

Dawn Of Dual Core

Intel and AMD will introduce more of these powerful processors this year as they go mainstream in a big way

In three years, when the entire universe of PC computing--mobile, desktop, server--is running on highly efficient dual-core, quad-core, and eight-core CPU platforms, we'll all look back on 2006 as the year the new world of processors began.

Both Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. released dual-core desktop processors in 2005, but consumers are just now beginning to upgrade into the realm of increased hypertasking efficiency. The transition hasn't been entirely smooth--particularly for Intel, whose Pentium D series of dual-core processors was the target of frequent snipes from technocritics disappointed by the limitations inherent in processors' architecture.

Speed is the thing with AMD's X2 series of dual-core CPUs

Speed is the thing with AMD's X2 series of dual-core CPUs
In contrast, AMD's X2 series of dual-core CPUs impressed critics with highly improved real-world speed increases, winning numerous head-to-head showdowns against Pentium D 800 CPUs.

Intel hopes to reverse this trend this year. The chipmaker has been unusually vocal about its aggressive plans to roll out several new CPU lines and a fabricating process that could result in increased economic and power efficiencies as well as faster processors. Connect the dots among these new CPUs, the company's rebranding of its decade-old "Intel Inside" motto, and the marketing push for the new Viiv platform and it's clear that Intel is betting big on the next 12 months.

It's also clear that despite copious speculation predicting otherwise, Intel will focus sharply on the desktop and the mainstream-oriented living-room markets in coming years.

The perpetual David to Intel's Goliath, AMD is keeping its plans close to the vest, despite news reports that AMD-powered desktops outsold Intel-powered ones during several periods last year. The company has released few details regarding its plans, but we dug up some interesting information regarding a new CPU socket and several new processors in existing lines.

Migration Plan
Beyond specific new processors, the big news for Intel in 2006 is the chipmaker's migration to a 65- nanometer CPU fabrication process from its current 90-nanometer process. The term 65 nanometer refers to the width of the smallest circuit wires on the semiconductor; a typical human hair is 80,000 nanometers in diameter.

In addition to providing increased financial efficiency, moving to 65-nanometer fabrication will allow a larger number of transistors on a single chip, which will provide a stronger foundation for innovation on dual- and multicore platforms.

Sixty-five nanometers also will give Intel a tremendous short-term and possibly long-term advantage over AMD, which won't be shifting the bulk of its lineup to 65 nanometer until mid-2007. Of course, the company must capitalize on these increased efficiencies with powerful new processors.

Based on information Intel has released, it appears that its plan is to stay with current-generation CPU architectures for the first half of 2006 and to unleash some impressive-sounding next-generation technology in the second half of the year.

What role does the much-hyped Viiv (rhymes with "five") play in all this? This is a tricky question, because the Viiv platform is a Centrino-style standard rather than a specific product and specifies a PC with a dual-core processor, remote control operation, Gigabit Ethernet, TV tuner card, and Windows XP Media Center Edition. Viiv also incorporates Intel's new Quick Resume Technology, which allows for instant on/off of the PC once it's booted.

The first processors to roll off this fabrication process will be current-gen Pentium 4s code-named Cedar Mill. Based on Intel's NetBurst architecture, these are single-core CPUs that will be released in early 2006. Intel has declined to release clock speeds, model numbers, or prices, but it's a safe bet that Cedar Mill processors will be deployed in all of Intel's single-core series of processors, and as such, they will have 512 Kbytes, 1 Mbyte, or 2 Mbytes of L2 cache.

Also in the first half of 2006, Intel will use these same 65-nanometer Cedar Mill cores in a new, dual-core line of processors, code-named Presler. These chips will be released under the Pentium D moniker, but will be placed into a new 900 series under Intel's naming scheme. The 955XE, an Extreme Edition dual-core version aimed at high-end gamers and power users, already has been released to rave reviews. Like Intel's first Extreme Edition Dual Core, the 955XE features hyperthreading support, which allows it to show up as four processors in Windows. Also new is a lightning-fast 1,066-MHz front side bus.

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