2008 CPU forecast: Quad-cores for everyone!

What's in store for desktop processors this year? Computerworld makes its annual CPU prognostications

The first consumer octo-cores

At the extreme high end of the performance spectrum, Intel has several new CPUs in store for the first half of 2008. Both the QX9770 and QX9775 processors are Extreme Edition processors clocked at 3.2 GHz, offering a slight clock-speed increase over the enthusiast-caliber 3.0-GHz QX9650 released at the end of 2007.

The kicker for these two CPUs, which will be released in coming weeks, is that both represent a leap in front-side bus (FSB) speeds from 1333 MHz to 1600 MHz. The QX9770 will operate on Intel's pending X48 chip set, which supports the 1600 FSB bump in speed; it is also compatible with the slower X38 set.

The QX9775 is built for Intel's new server-inspired LGA771-based Skulltrail platform, which will allow hardcore users to plug two of these quad-core processors into a single motherboard, offering the first octo-core application for consumers.

In addition to running at 3.2 GHz, both processors will feature astonishingly large 12MB L2 caches. At price ranges near US$1,500, these CPUs will be far from cheap.

It is likely that Intel will roll out another iteration of Extreme Edition processors at 3.4 GHz and possibly up to 4.0 GHz before the year's end.

Quad-cores (and dual-cores) for the rest of us

Intel will also be rolling out nonextreme Penryn Q- and E-class processors throughout the course of 2008. (Q stands for quad-core, while the E series is the standard Core 2 Duo line.) In weeks, we'll begin to see the first of these made available to consumers.

At the midrange, Intel will release numerous quad- and dual-core CPUs under the desktop Core 2 and server-based Xeon labels. It's worth noting that these quad-core processors are not "native" quad-core -- instead they consist of two dual-core dies joined at the hip.

In the first quarter of 2008 alone, we'll see the release of the Core 2 Quad Q9300 (2.5-GHz clock speed with a 6MB L2 cache), the Q9450 (2.7-GHz, 12MB L2 cache) and the Q9550 (2.8-GHz, 12MB L2 cache). All three processors will run on a 1333-MHz front-side bus and Socket LGA775. Near the third quarter of 2008, we'll see the Q9400 (2.7 GHz, 6MB L2) and the Q9650 (3.0 GHz, 12MB L2). Both of these processors will run on the LGA775 socket and a 1333 FSB. (If you're keeping track at home, the "50" designator on Q-series CPUs indicates a 12MB L2 cache.)

A sure sign that market dynamics in the CPU biz have greatly changed in the past few years is the fact that 45nm dual-core 2.6- to 3.3-GHz Core 2 Duo processors are now considered the bottom rung of midrange processors.

In the first half of 2008, Intel will release a series of 45nm Core 2 Duos, including the E8190 (2.7 GHz), E8200 (2.7 GHz), E8300 (2.8 GHz), E8400 (3.0 GHz), and E8500 (3.2 GHz). Sometime in the third quarter, the E8600 (3.3 GHz) will debut. All of these CPUs are Socket LGA775 and will feature 6MB L2 caches, run on a 1333 MHz front-side bus and support Intel's Virtualization Technology.

The lowest end of the Core 2 Duo spectrum will feature a new 65nm Core 2 Duo CPU: the 2.6-GHz E4700, which sports a 2MB L2 cache and runs on an 800-MHz FSB. Also on tap is the Penryn-based E7200, a 2.5-GHz chip with a 3MB L2 cache and 1066-MHz FSB speeds. Neither of these processors will be capable of virtualization.

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