Intel Pitches Performance Of Quad-Core 45-Nm Penryn - InformationWeek

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Alexander Wolfe
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Intel Pitches Performance Of Quad-Core 45-Nm Penryn

Intel has officially lifted the lid on its long-awaited 45-nm Penryn processors. The devices are significant not only because they push the envelope, but because they extend Moore's Law a bit longer through their use of the rare element Hafnium.

Intel has officially lifted the lid on its long-awaited 45-nm Penryn processors. The devices are significant not only because they push the envelope, but because they extend Moore's Law a bit longer through their use of the rare element Hafnium.First, the chips themselves. Most interesting to me as a desktop user is the release of the Core 2 Extreme QX9650. The 45-nm part takes its place at the head of Intel's desktop line, above the 65-nm QX6850, which is no slouch itself. On paper, there are many similarities. Both are clocked at 3.0-GHz and have a thermal design envelope of 130-W. The QX9650 does have a bigger cache: 12-MB versus 8-MB.

However, Intel says that the QX9650 can vastly outperform its older cousin on many tasks. At a launch event in New York on Nov. 13, Intel noted that the 45-nm part can do up to 60 percent better on such important multimedia functions as video encoding.

Intel is also touting all the Penryns as the industry's first lead-free processors. I have to admit that, while I certainly favor a clean environment, "green" stories per se don't excite me. Also, I'm not sure that cleaning up semiconductor technology in 2007 can make up for years of neglect. (I'm not blaming Intel here; I used to work next to a chip making plant on Long Island, and we used to pass a sump filled with radioactive-looking green ooze on the way to our cars every day.) Still, I guess it's never too late to go non-toxic.

As the next step, Intel is planning to be completely halogen-free in 2008. This refers not to projector light bulbs, but to the chemicals Fluorine, Chlorine, Bromine, and Iodine.

Back to the Penryns. Along with the desktop chip, there's a bunch of new 45-nm Xeons. I've always been confused by the dizzying number of server-chip SKUs fielded by Intel. It's pretty much impossible to keep track of the Xeons without a scorecard.

Fortunately, Intel has provided one. There are 12 new 45-nm, quad-core Xeons, as part of the Xeon 5400 series. There are also two new 45-nm dual-core server processors, in the 5200 series.

As to the Moore's Law aspect I noted at the outset of the post, Intel Fellow Mark Bohr explained this stuff as the press event. I'll relate it in as accessible a fashion as I can.

These 45-nm Penryns are the successors to the current generation of 65-nm parts. As Intel attempted to shrink the features of its ships, it found that the Silicon Dioxide it was using as an insulator was becoming so thin (five atoms thick, at points), that current was leaking through. This made it impossible to manufacture a chip which would operate the same way every time (and it would use an excessive amount of power to boot, because of all the leakage current).

So Intel enlisted the rare element Hafnium to serve as an insulator, which would perform its function without leaking. Bohr lamented that fact that some reports yesterday said that Intel was replacing silicon with Hafnium. "Nothing could be further from the truth," Bohr said. "We just changed that very thin insulator."

In response to a question about whether Intel would have trouble ensuring a steady supply of Hafnium, Bohr said that the element constitutes less than one-tenth of one percent of each chip, so that won't be a problem.

More importantly, the Hafnium will allow Intel to progress to its next planned generation of chips, at 32-nm, in 2009. Whether Hafnium will suffice for finer geometries, or whether Intel will have to eventually seek out other materials, Bohr didn't say.

To listen to Bohr explain this stuff in his own words, listen to the podcast I recorded with him this August.

Here's a PowerPoint outlining the features of the QX9650:

Intel's first 45-nm desktop quad core processor, the QX9650. (Click picture to enlarge.)

Meanwhile, AMD is shipping its quad-core Barcelona processors. There have been questions about just how widely available the devices are. For the record, AMD says that it is indeed shipping product to its OEMs. And the industry, as well as desktop enthusiasts everywhere, are anxiously awaiting AMD's first quad-core desktop processors, named Phenom.

Those parts are supposed to begin shipping before the end of the year. However, realistically, they won't be available in large quantities until 2008.

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