Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Intel back to Roswell. Again.

Our buddies at Intel are pulling some super sci-fi crap out of who knows where!

Let's recap a broad stroked CPU history as I recall off the top of my head:
x86s - Intel leads, AMD "compatible"
Pentium - Intel stomps on AMD for years (maybe 6) through the P4.
Athlon - Somehow AMD jumps back in it and, for the first couple year period, establishes itself as the dominant product. Through the Athlonx2, clock speed was lower for a faster product.

OK, close enough battles! What matters for modern CPUs:
1. Speed - decided by benchmarks not Mhz.
2. Cost - to determine the valuable price/performance ratio.
3. Power usage/heat dissipation - Recall that 486s shipped with passive heatsinks. Modern AMDs have massive heatsink/fan combos that require a new generation of power supplies. This isn't just for laptops anymore.

I had a Computer Science architecture professor project a graph of Moore's Law and physics projecting a CPU's thermal dissipation at a of nuclear reactor than the sun in the next decade or so (starting several years ago). He was projecting a breakdown of Moore's law, not a superhot machine! While physics will eventually defeat it with our current technology, he failed to consider architectural innovation and the constantly shrinking die size.

Where Intel has been getting interesting recently:
Core 2 Duo - It couldn't have been much more than a year ago when Intel released this monster! Sure Athlon x2s already had two cores on one die! But the Intel beast shared a common cache, greatly speeding up data transfer where it mattered. It was also able to turn off sections of the cache, producing a considerable power savings. Who would have known?

Bottom line, Intel, seemingly totally dominated, releases a CPU that takes the crown by a large margin in the big three categories: Speed, Power (usage), and Price. Meanwhile, I'm scratching my head wondering where this came from.

So this year, Intel again releases a monster! Yeah, yeah, we've all seen the reviews of the quad cores - not that impressive. But around the same time, Intel sends out lab samples of their new processor. This time, it's SUBSTANTIALLY faster (45% than AMD current top dog according to tomshardware), very overclockable, and is frugal in terms of power consumption. What gives? Besides going down to a 45nm process, Intel has developed a new transistor technology. Instead of the typical Silicon Oxide MOSFETs, they've gone to Hafnium based "High-K" gates. You can read about the higher switching speeds and lower leakage currents at the Tomshardware review. They sent a faster QX9770 than the reviewed QX9550 the following week.

CPUs get faster - that's a fact of life that we're all used to. But Intel's sudden moves in the last 2 years have been nothing less than shocking.

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