IDF - Intel promises more efficiency with Penryn

During the first day of its Intel Developer forum in San Francisco this week, the chip giant set launch dates for its next generation of microprocessors, demonstrated future CPU designs that support up to eight cores, and looked ahead to the manufacturing processes it will use on chips in 2009. Intel plans to launch new server and enthusiast products this November, and the company has plenty more on tap.

Here's a quick guide to this first day of IDF announcements.

Penryn is almost here

Intel's next CPU core is just about ready. The processor giant reports that it just sent qualification samples of its upcoming Penryn desktop and server chips to manufacturing partners in anticipation of a November 12 launch.

Penryn will be the first mainstream CPU manufactured using a 45nm process (current CPUs are on a 65nm process), which lets Intel continue to pack more transistors on a chip. We've previously covered the high-K metal gate technology Intel uses to help shrink features to that level, the benchmarks Intel released on Penryn chips, and the architectural changes the Penryn core incorporates to speed things up vs. Core 2 Duo and Quad chips, but now the actual launch line-up for Penryn is now coming into focus.

Enthusiasts to get some nice Christmas presents

Penryn will launch on desktops with a high-end quad-core offering, the Core 2 Extreme QX9650. The CPU will feature 12MB of L2 cache and run at at least 3GHz.

Before Penryn arrives, Intel will also launch a new enthusiast desktop platform codenamed Bonetrail. Motherboards based on Boentrail will include a new X38 Express chip set, which includes support for DDR3 1333 memory and PCI Express 2.0. With PCI Express 2.0 on board, enthusiast and workstation systems can run two PCI express graphics cards at full x16 speeds.

These X38 boards will also include new motherboard tweaking software, and unlocked bus ratios for easier overclocking. They should work with both Core 2 Duo and Quad chips as well as the up coming Penryn CPUs. Intel expects to ship the first X38 boards on October 10.

Servers (and probably Mac Pros) get a boost, too

The other side of the Penryn launch focuses on server chips, where Intel has new Xeon processors and supporting chip sets ready for that same November 12 launch. On the CPU front, new quad-core Xeons (codenamed Harpertown) are ready to go. Those chips feature the same 12MB of cache and are available in 120W, 80W, and 50W models. There's also a dual-core (Wolfdale) chip with 6MB of cache for dual-processor systems.

At launch, those Xeons will be able to plug into a new platform called Stokley, which (among other things) includes a 1600 MHz front-side bus and the same PCI Express 2.0 support as Intel's X38-based enthusiast offering. Stokley will also form the basis for an uber-enthusiast, dual-socket gaming motherboard with support for two quad-core CPUs and up to 4 PCI Express x16 graphics boards.

Intel demonstrated a water-cooled system running this crazy-fast (and crazy-expensive) platform dubbed "Skulltrail" at IDF this week. They expect to ship Skulltrail systems late this year or early next year.

Here's where Apple enthusiasts should perk up their ears: The latest update to OS X, Leopard, is set to launch in October. Current MacPro systems use Intel Xeon processors and workstation boards. With Intel's new dual-processor workstation boards and CPUs ready shortly after Leopard ships, can a Penryn-based update to the Mac Pro be far behind?


Penryn goes low-power

Intel will fill out the Penryn line-up with mainstream desktop chips and mobile chips set to ship in Q1 of 2008, but, in one of the more interesting announcements of the day, the company also mentioned a 25-watt dual-core Penryn processor that would ship next year.

The 25W Penryn chip would arrive alongside Intel's Montevina laptop platform, which will include support for obth Wi-Fi and WiMAX.

The next generation isn't far behind

What comes after Penryn? Intel works on a tick/tock strategy that allows it to introduce new manufacturing processes every two years, while continuing to update its processor lines. As the first 45nm chip Intel's manufacturing, Penryn was designed as an update to the company's successful Core 2 Duo architecture.

The next step, Nehalem, is an entirely new CPU core designed from the ground up to support more than 4 cores and work on a 45nm manufacturing process.

Intel demonstrated 45nm Nehalem chips running Windows today, just three weeks from when its engineers got the first Nehalem silicon. The company expects to ship the first Nehalem processors in the second half of 2008.

As we've mentioned previously, Nehalem chips will eventually feature up to eight cores, each of which is capable of running two threads. The architecture also uses a new system bus technology called QuickPath, which incorporates a memory controller on the same die as the CPU, and which Intel claims will offer three times the bandwidth of its current systems and the competition from AMD. Mainstream Nehalem CPUs will include integrated graphics hardware.

Nor is the generation after that

Looking beyond Nehalem, Intel also demonstrated its first working chips based on the 32nm manufacturing process the company plans to begin rolling out in 2009. The 32nm test chips include 291Mbits of Static Random Access Memory (a simple type of fast memory often used as a cache on CPUs) as well as other types of logic used in constructing CPUs.

Each test chip includes over 1.9 billion transistors, and between the SRAM and the other logic ion the chip, Intel is able to exercise all the transistor and interconnect features it will use in creating 32nm processors.

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Eric Dahl

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