Ahead of the Curve: Intel details Core x86 chip plans

Ahead of the Curve: Intel details Core x86 chip plans

At the recent Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, Intel's new slogan, Leap Ahead, has shown its true meaning: The once-indomitable chipmaker wants a time machine that will let it leap ahead to 2007. After all, 2006 is shaping up to be quite an ugly year for the company, as it faces serious challenges on technological, financial, legal, and strategic fronts.

Fortunately for Intel, there's light at the end of the tunnel. The company's plan to live more simply with an x86 product line based on a single architecture -- adapted from the Pentium M, squeezed down to 65nm, and dubbed Core - has begun to bear fruit.

The first processors using the Core microarchitecture have already appeared in the iMac, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini systems, all of which sport Core Solo or Core Duo 32-bit CPUs. Intel showed off that same Core Duo technology packaged as a server processor dubbed Xeon LV, which is due to ship in March and mainly targets blade servers. Shortly after Xeon LV, Intel will deliver a new dual-core Bensley server platform with a Xeon CPU code-named Dempsey, a new chip set, and a new electrical design.

Then things start to get interesting. In the third quarter of 2006 a faster, reduced-power Core architecture CPU called Woodcrest will go into production sporting 64-bit support, virtualisation technology, and a number of other enhancements. One is Macrofusion, a technique for identifying and reducing pairs of x86 instructions that should have been written as a single instruction. This could yield measurable benefits for dynamic code, older apps, or certain open source apps. Intel also tweaked its Streaming single instruction, multiple data (SIMD) Extensions to execute all requests in a single clock cycle, a feature that will boost Core's gaming performance.

In early 2007, Woodcrest will be followed by Clovertown, a quad-core CPU for dual-processor servers. Interestingly, Clovertown will be socket-compatible with Bensley, meaning that OEMs will be able to get Clovertown quad-core servers to market fast. It will have a four-core desktop cousin, Kentsfield, shipping around the same time.

Woodcrest, Clovertown, and Kentsfield will also underline Intel's greatest point of pride: power conservation. Power Gating is Intel's name for a widely used method of powering down unused portions of a chip. It's applied now at a fairly coarse level, but there is enormous potential for Intel to work finer-grained Power Gating into its SpeedStep dynamic power management.

The Core technology used in Macs and the newest Centrino notebooks isn't long for this earth. Intel's Justin Rattner praised to the 32-bit Core Duo as if to bury it, saying: "Core Duo proved what is possible, and it's given us the foundation for moving forward."

Core Duo looks like a much-needed placeholder. AMD has already announced three new Opteron models and a dual-core version of its Turion mobile CPU, with more introductions expected in the second quarter. Intel's on the right track with the Core microarchitecture, but IT buyers may want to sit tight until late 2006 or early 2007.

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