Intel's multicore PC chip pushes notebook performance a step closer to desktop levels

The PC business got off to a good start this year with the launch of Intel's new Core Duo - the first mainstream PC chip to provide two processors on a single die, and the first Intel processor to appear in Apple Macintoshes.

 The PC business got off to a good start this year with the launch of Intel's new Core Duo - the first mainstream PC chip to provide two processors on a single die, and the first Intel processor to appear in Apple Macintoshes.

It's not a new idea, of course, because IBM has been selling multicore processors in servers since 2001, and Microsoft launched a multicore games console before Christmas. Intel has also been shipping "two-in-one" chips with its hyperthreading (HT) Pentiums. Still, it's a significant step towards the two, four and eight-core designs that will be the future of a trillion-dollar industry.

The Core Duo (codenamed Yonah) is aimed at the notebook PC market, at non-portable designs based on notebook technologies, such as Apple's iMac, and at blade servers.

It is also a core part of Intel's Centrino wireless platform, along with the 945 Express chip set and Intel's 3945ABG Wi-Fi adaptor with Cisco-compatible extensions. The 945 Express chip set is significant in that it supports the new Aero Glass graphics interface in Microsoft's Windows Vista.

Performance is not spectacular, but it generally seems 20-30% better than the previous generation of Intel notebook processors, and therefore close to desktop levels.

There also promises to be more dramatic improvements with multithreaded programs and when running several programs at once.

Since prices are comparable, Core Duo machines should be the first choice for purchases in most circumstances.

Battery life is about the same as the previous (second) generation of Centrino notebooks, and Core Duo notebooks have been criticised for not delivering better battery life.

After extensive testing, Anand Lal Shimpi at AnandTech found this was due to USB2 drivers in Windows XP SP2 preventing the processor from exploiting its new, deeper sleep modes.

Microsoft has issued a partial fix, which works until the processor sleeps and wakes up again. However, it turns out that the problem is not specific to the Core Duo but affects the previous (Sonoma) platform "just as much, if not more", reports AnandTech.

However it might not be advisable to make a long-term commitment to the current Core Duo chip. Intel has been developing a new micro-architecture that reflects its shift to targeting "performance per watt" rather than simply performance.

This will be used in three new multicore processors that are scheduled for release in the second half of this year. The new power-saving chips are codenamed Merom (for notebooks), Conroe (for desktops) and Woodcrest (a Xeon for workstations and servers).

All these are 64-bit chips and will be able to run the 64-bit version of Windows Vista.

At this stage, it is not clear whether there will be a smooth transition to next-generation PCs that combine 64-bit Merom/Conroe/Woodcrest chips with Vista. However, it is worth considering the implications before investing heavily in 32-bit Core Duo/XP systems.

Jack Schofield is computer editor at the Guardian

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