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
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.
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.
This group of CPUs will replace the original Pentium D 800 series, but it appears that the dual-die downside to the 800 series also will be present in Presler processors: The 900-series CPU cores still will exist on two separate dies. This means that each CPU will be unable to communicate or share status or cache information without first going through the front side bus.
Thankfully, this will change in the second half of the year.
Intel's dual cores initially disappointed
This future architecture is based entirely on Intel's next-generation mobile processor, code-named Merom, which is being developed with both mobile (read "low power consumption") and dual- or multicore features.
Intel's goal for Merom, scheduled for release during the second half of 2006, is to combine the Pentium 4 architecture with the increased processing power and thermal efficiencies of the Pentium M. The result will be a number of new mobile CPUs, including several Merom-based dual-core releases in the second half of the year.
It's no surprise, then, to hear that the Merom-based architecture will be the foundation of all future Intel processors--mobile, desktop, and enterprise. Currently, Intel uses Pentium 4 and Pentium D NetBurst architectures for desktop/enterprise, and Pentium M for notebooks. One of the key distinguishing characteristics of Merom-based desktop CPUs is that Intel is removing some of the power constraints that exist in the mobile version of the Merom architecture to ratchet up performance.
It's highly likely that in 2007 we'll even see quad-core processors based on this platform. Intel is said already to have quad- and eight-core processors in the works, code-named Kentsfield and Yorkfield, respectively.
In 2006, you can expect to see two desktop CPUs based on this new architecture. The first, code-named Conroe, will be a Socket 775 processor featuring two cores and a shared 4-Mbyte L2 cache. This shared cache is a substantial improvement over Intel's current-generation chips, as is another element of the new design that will allow the separate L1 caches on each core to communicate with and even transfer data to the other.
The result will be significantly increased processor performance. That's exciting. Also excit-ing are the aggressive levels of power management Intel is building into this line.
Allendale will come on the heels of Conroe and will feature two cores but only a 2-Mbyte shared L2 cache. A new Intel chipset--i965, code-named Broadwater--will be released alongside Conroe and Allendale. Speculation that the Conroe, Merom, and Woodcrest (the enterprise version) processors would mark the end of the Pentium brand and the beginning of a new one appeared to be confirmed when Intel said that its new mobile processors would have the Core and Core Duo monikers.
AMD's Private Plans
While Intel has been extremely vocal about its plans, AMD has been surprisingly quiet. So quiet, in fact, that we had to dig deep to gather information regarding its upcoming processors and new architectures.
AMD won't be switching to a 65-nanometer fabricating process for its CPUs this year. Although it has revealed the development of 65-nanometer manufacturing technology with IBM, it's unlikely that AMD will be able to retool its plants to implement the new process with this year's CPU releases. AMD's CPU line will be "substantially converted to 65-nanometer technology by mid-2007," according to an AMD spokesperson. Given that, it's probable that the company won't release a new CPU architecture this year, either.
It appears this year that AMD will focus on two strategic concepts. First, it will integrate new virtualization and security technologies into its existing CPU lines. Second, in order to gain some ground on Intel's dominant Pentium M and upcoming mobile processors, AMD will focus much of its effort on a big push for its Turion 64 mobile line.
Details are hard to come by, but these plans likely will include a dual-core mobile CPU in the first half of 2006 and a new socket, code-named Socket S, in the second half.
Fortunately for AMD, its current processors--including the dual-core X2 line--tend to outperform Intel at the low, midrange, and high end of the CPU spectrum. Will Intel's switch to 65 nanometer change this? Possibly. This should make for an interesting and competitive year.
One of AMD's key pushes this year is neither a new processor architecture nor a new fabricating process but rather new virtualization technology code-named Pacifica. Technically, Pacifica debuted at the end of last year, but it will only begin to appear in new AMD CPU releases--Opteron, Turion 64, Athlon 64 FX, Athlon 64 X2, Athlon 64, and Mobile Athlon 64 products--this year.
Virtualization is a way to run multiple operating systems, or multiple instances of the same operating system, on a single computer. Intel released its own virtualization technology last year. This technology is a boon for software developers and will boost security and reduce scaling costs for servers. Virtualization also has benefits for desktop PC users--imagine running both Windows and Linux applications at the same time.
Reducing The Hit
Beyond enabling virtualization, a big component of Pacifica is to reduce the performance hit that the technology carries with it.
AMD's biggest news will come midyear when its new socket becomes available. Originally code-named M2, this 940-pin socket will allow Athlon 64-based systems to use speedier DDR2 memory and will result in a marked improvement in CPU and system performance. Recent Internet reports have indicated that the new socket won't be released with the M2 name or the Socket F moniker that also has been used but will be named Socket AM2.
Whatever its name, shortly after the new socket debuts, AMD will release processors in the Athlon 64 X2, Athlon 64, and Sempron lines for it. In line with the new socket's unbuffered DDR2 support, each of these new processors will feature onboard DDR2 memory controllers.
AMD's New Processors
Over the course of the year, AMD likely will release processors in these four product lines:
>> Athlon 64 X2: The pride of the chipmaker's CPU arsenal is the dual-core X2 line, and it appears that early this year the company will release an Athlon 64 X2 5000+ clocked at 2.6 GHz. We should see the same processor for the new DDR2-enabled M2 socket later in the year.
>> Athlon 64 FX: Not surprisingly, Athlon's high-end performance line will receive at least one and probably two upgrades this year. In January, AMD released the Athlon 64 FX-60, a speedy dual-core with each core running at 2.6 GHz. Like other FX series processors, the CPU has a massive 1-Mbyte L2 cache. Based on early testing, it appears the FX-60 and Intel's new 955XE are very close in terms of performance. Although AMD isn't talking, we wouldn't be surprised if the company releases another dual-core FX processor, the FX-61, in the second half of the year.
>> Athlon 64: Again, AMD has been quiet regarding the future of its base line of Athlon 64 processors. With the focus on the X2 line of dual-core processors, single-core Athlon 64s appear to be taking a backseat. However, it appears that AMD will release the 4000+, 3800+, and 3500+ series of processors for its new DDR2-enabled M2 socket in the year's second half.
>> Sempron:To capture more of the low-end market, AMD is prepping numerous releases in its "value" Sempron category. In the first half of 2006, we should see the debut of Sempron 3500+, 3600+, and 3700+ CPUs. These new processors will feature 64-bit extensions. In the second half of the year, AMD should release an AM2-based Sempron processor code-named Manila. This processor won't include Pacifica virtualization capabilities, but it will include a dual-channel DDR2 memory controller--that's a big deal for a value CPU.