World of Processors

Over the past 20+ years, the PC industry has revolved around key innovations in processor technology. Recent years have been marked by the emergence of multi-core processor technology. Today, there are essentially three types of processors currently available for the desktop PC user: single core, dual core, and quad core. The ‘core’ is the part of the microprocessor that does the work. This is different from computers with multiple processors. Dual or quad core computers only have a single processor, but that processor can have multiple ‘cores’. The advantages of multiple cores on a single processor include lower power requirements than multiple processors, less heat generation, which means a simpler cooling system, less complexity (and reduced manufacturing costs) in the motherboard as only a single socket is required, and reduced latencies between the communicating components, which translate directly into more speed. Besides the core, there is the cache area of the processor, which can be thought of as the ‘Inbox’ where work is temporarily stored while waiting for the processor to get to it. The bigger the cache, the more work that can be stored there and the more work that can be stored there, the less time it takes to get it processed. As you would expect, the amount of work each processor can do over a period of time increases with each additional core.

Some of the current offerings from Intel and AMD are illustrated below:

INTEL RELEASE DATE AMD RELEASE DATE
PENTIUM 4 (32 BIT) NOVEMBER 2000
(DISCONTINUED)
ATHLON 64 SEPTEMBER 23, 2003
CORE (32 BIT) JANUARY 5, 2006 ATHLON 64 FX SEPTEMBER 23, 2003
CORE 2 DUO JULY 27, 2006 ATHLON 64 X2 JANUARY 8 2005
(QUAD CORE) NOVEMBER 2, 2006 (ATHLON X2) JUNE 1, 2007
CENTRINO MARCH 2003 TURION MARCH 10, 2005
XEON MID 2001 OPTERON APRIL 22,2003

On the Intel side we have the Pentium 4, Core, Core 2 Duo, Centrino, and Xeon as the most popular processors currently marketed. The Core 2 Duo also includes the Quad cores and the Extreme Editions. For AMD there is the Athlon 64, Athlon 64 X2, Athlon X2, Athlon FX, Turion, and Opteron.

32 bit vs. 64 bit

With the introduction of the Athlon 64 in September of 2003, AMD brought 64 bit computing to the desktop PC. 32 and 64 bit refer to the size or amount of data that can be processed in one operation. In the simplest of terms, for a large calculation, the 32 bit processor would have to make two transactions for every one the 64 bit processor makes. The speed implications are obvious. Additionally, 64 bit architecture greatly increases the amount of Random Access Memory that can be used during processing.

Today, virtually all new processors produced are 64 bit. Single core, 32 bit processor based systems are still available on the lower end of the price spectrum and remain suitable for less processor-intensive tasks, such as web surfing or email.

Dual core

Along with being 64 bit capable, most current releases are also dual core processors. A dual core processor’s ability to perform multiple functions simultaneously can dramatically decrease the processing time necessary for processor-intensive tasks (photo editing, ripping/burning CDs/DVDs, computer gaming). Software applications that can take advantage of this enhanced processing capability have been uncommon, but are now beginning to emerge.

Core (Solo or Duo), Centrino, and Turion are the dual core models developed specifically for the mobile platform. They use less power and generate less heat, thereby being ideal laptop processors. Xeons and Opterons are designed specifically for the server market, although the AMD Opteron has also proven to be a popular and affordable choice for a desktop computer. The Intel Xeons and Centrinos have actually been through several different iterations while maintaining their purposeful names. Although released back in the days of the Pentiums, both are currently using the Core 2 architecture. Only the names remain the same.

Quad Core

Although very little software currently exists to take advantage of four cores, the quad core processor is the undisputed multi-tasking king. For multitasking with multiple processor-intensive tasks, such as video encoding while rendering an image, calculating a spread sheet, running a CAD program, and preparing a slide show, or any other combination of intense multi-tasking, a quad core processor is best equipped to handle the load. AMD, although first to market with a dual core desktop processor, has not yet released a quad core model. The next generation of AMD processors (K-10) is expected be released in late 2007 or early 2008. Early indications suggest that the AMD processor’s performance will be very competitive with the Intel series. For now, this leaves Intel unchallenged in the quad core space.

The Future

An 80 core processor currently in development at Intel represents a glimpse into processor technology of the future – dedicated to decreasing computing time by increasing the number of cores working the data. Each core will be relatively simple in design, but dividing the workload among 80 cores will dramatically reduce calculation times.

Coming:
What role do clock speeds play?What are the differences between an AMD and an Intel processor?

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