PC vendors are launching more and more computers with dual-core and quad-core processors, promising users that the expensive machines can juggle more applications at work or play better games at home.
But amid the marketing blitz, some consumers are asking whether all the extra power is really necessary, since their basic desktop software runs fine on traditional Athlon and Pentium chips.
"Most users don't even use the processor that they have now if they've purchased something within the last year or two," says Gary Wallin, director of technical services for Incentra Solutions, an enterprise IT services firm in Boulder, Colorado.
"Those people can totally 'get by' with older single-core processors. My current laptop is not a dual-core anything and I'm able to do my job without lag."
Despite that reluctance, chip vendors are rushing new designs to market, such as Intel's product launches last year: Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad for desktops, and its dual-core Woodcrest and quad-core Clovertown Xeon chips for servers. At the same time, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) is developing a Phenom quad-core desktop chip, due out later this year, to complement its dual-core Opteron and quad-core Barcelona server chip, which is due out in August.
Power users will certainly find a way to use the extra power in multicore chips for high-end games, IT administration, software development or virtualization, Wallin said. But single-core chips offer the average user plenty of processing capacity to handle tasks like sending e-mail, surfing the Web, displaying pictures and playing an occasional simple game.
Those users can find a "sweet spot" of PC value by purchasing a computer one or two levels below the latest release, buying perfectly capable machines for pennies on the dollar, he said.
In fact, users lose out when they make purchases based on advertisements for trendy gadgets like quad-core processors or Apple's iPhone, said Davood Sedaghatfar, an IT management consultant in Virginia.
"The multicore technology is way over-rated for public use. I think the manufacturers use these terms and technotalk to make people think they are getting the whiz-bang stuff! But in reality, I do not think the public uses even 2 percent of the power and functionality," Sedaghatfar said.
However, chip vendors insist that consumers are getting their money's worth, since modern processor design offers more benefits than simply computing power. Multicore chips can generate less heat than conventional processors, allowing them to fit in smaller, thinner PCs. They are also more power-efficient since they use small 45-nanometer or 65nm-size transistors instead of 90nm parts.
Combined, those features make quad-core processors an important tool for users who want to use their desktops for intense multimedia applications, according to Intel. A quad-core desktop processes data 50 percent to 80 percent faster than a dual-core computer in applications such as streaming movies, 3D gaming and content creation, Intel said.
Likewise, Dell promises users that its multicore desktops can more efficiently perform many applications at once, letting them multitask jobs like scanning for viruses, burning MP3 songs and playing video games.
PC vendors also use multicore chips in mainstream servers, which have increasingly similar performance to high-end desktops. Guests at Boston's Seaport Hotel can use free thin-client PCs installed in each room, powered by Hewlett-Packard ProLiant DL380s servers using dual-core Intel chips.
"The performance is outstanding; they just scream," said John Burke, the hotel's vice president of technology. He manages a fleet of 85 thin clients from IGEL Technology GmbH, and plans to soon install those units in the rest of the hotel's 426 rooms. "I'm not worried about the back end at all. With what we have now, I can't foresee having to add any hardware," Burke said.
Because of performance like that, PC vendors are on track to use quad-core processors in one-half of all mainstream PCs by the fourth quarter of 2009, according to the analyst firm iSuppli. That forecast marks a steep rise from the first quarter of 2007, when quad-core chips appeared in just 16 percent of high-end PCs, and in no mainstream or value-priced PC models at all.
By the first quarter of 2009, quad-core chips will be used in fully 85 percent of performance PCs and 25 percent of mainstream models, although vendors will still not use the chips in value models, according to the iSuppli forecast.
The increased use will be driven mostly by dropping prices, as Intel is expected to cut its prices to compete with quad-core chips from AMD scheduled to reach markets by the end of 2007, said Matthew Wilkins, iSuppli's principal analyst for compute platforms.
"You could say that arguing about whether the average user needs higher performance processors is irrelevant, because Intel and AMD are going to continue to deliver processors with increasing performance to market," Wilkins said. "We have seen both AMD and Intel highlight multicore as the key design philosophy for future microprocessors."