Intel, AMD six-core chips mark an evolution for the desktop

Analysts say lack of software may slow initial spread of the high-speed technology

Desktop processor technology took a significant step forward this month with the unveiling of six-core processors by both Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Intel Corp., analysts say.

Intel on Wednesday took the wraps off its first six-core desktop chip, the Core i7-980X Extreme Edition , which it said can run at speeds of up to 3.33GHz. The chip is capable of running 12 threads - two per core -- simultaneously to boost performance, according to Intel.

Intel didn't disclose a release date for the chip, code-named Gulftown.

Intel rival AMD, which ships six-, eight- and 12-core server chips, is slated to ship its first six-core desktop processor, the Phenom II X6 , later this year.

AMD displayed a working unit of the chip in a desktop at the Cebit trade show in Hannover, Germany, earlier this month, without disclosing details about its performance or cache size.

Analysts called the upgraded processor technology an important step forward, but described it as evolutionary rather than revolutionary, mostly due to a lack of software to take advantage of the six cores.

"The issue remains that few things make use of any more than three cores right now, outside of professional workstations and servers," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group.

"However, Windows 7 is smarter with regard to making use of these cores than earlier versions. And games are increasingly using the extra cores for parallel tasks. That means the move to multiple cores will have an impact," he added.

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said that PC software is slowly catching up to the recent advances in hardware technology.

"True, not all PC software can efficiently take advantage of six cores yet, but this issue is fading over time as developers get better at adapting their software to quad-core and greater CPUs," said Olds. "There's definitely a learning curve to making code utilize multiple cores, but software developers are responding to the market."

Olds also called the six-core technology "an advance in the current state-of-the-art. We'll have to see some performance data on these new chips to accurately assess just how big a leap forward it is over current CPUs, but it's safe to say that most users will see a significant bump up in terms of speed and capabilities."

Enderle and Olds agreed that the six-core chips will get a huge boost once they are available for laptop computers, the fastest growing segment of the PC marketplace.

"Given most users are on laptops and that the majority of desktop workers are doing low-performance tasks, this [new desktop chip] doesn't have as much impact on most enterprises," said Enderle. "Exceptions are places like stock traders, analysts, multi-media authors or editors, and scientists who can use all the performance they can get. These classes will love these new six-core parts."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld . Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin , or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

Agam Shah, of the IDG News Service, contributed to this article.

Read more about processors in Computerworld's Processors Knowledge Center.

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