Sunday, April 20, 2008

Intel launching six-core CPUs this year

While most of us are still stuck with dual-core microchips (if that), Intel is prepping to launch a six-core processor in the second half of 2008. While the company currently offers a few four-core, or quad-core, models of its chips, most currently-sold machines still come with the more affordable dual-core CPUs installed.

The six-core chip is code-named Dunnington and will be built using the same 45nm process that Intel is using for its just-released Penryn-class chips. Another key feature is the chip's large level of level 3 (or L3) cache, 16MB, which is one of the memory buffers between the processor and RAM that are used to speed the overall performance of the chip. Most current Intel chips don't use any L3 cache, instead using only L2 cache: L3 has historically been limited to server-class computer chips, though AMD's Phenom chip has 2MB of L3 onboard. (Bottom line for those who don't understand any of this stuff: This chip ought to be blazing fast, at least on paper.)

The bigger question now becomes what Joe Average might actually do with six cores of processing power available to him. Numerous performance benchmarks have shown little real-world advantage in moving from two cores to four, even in high-end applications. Users who spend most of their time browsing the web and replying to email will find even less of a performance boost. That said, other computer components tend to get faster and more capable alongside new CPUs, so a Dunnington-based computer ought to feel very fast at booting, loading applications, and running complex processes like spell-checking a large document. Running an antivirus scan in the background which bogs down most computers should be no problem on a six-core CPU, too.

Expect Dunnington to arrive first for desktop PCs later this year. Intel hasn't said whether laptops are part of the plan for the technology, but given quad-core's limited introduction on notebook computers, I'd expect this to remain hard to find in a portable format for some time. More details as they emerge.

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