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March is the month of multi-core CPUs

Analysis All about the number six, and more
Mon Mar 01 2010, 16:13

THERE HASN'T BEEN anything really new on the high end CPU front for a while, but that's all set to change this month.

It's been nearly a year since Intel's latest speed update on its high-end desktop, workstation and server CPUs from the Nehalem tribe, while AMD surely hasn't been any better, since the six-core Istanbuls still languish in the below 3GHz realm.

However, March will bring a bumper harvest for the performance afficionados, whether you're looking to upgrade your super desktop, set up new workstations or add many cores to your server farm. And, we're talking about both CPU vendors here, for the first time in a long while during the same month.

Intel's focus, of course, will be on unveiling its 32nm six-core range based on the Gulftown chip. The first half of March should see announcement of the high-end desktop entry, the 3.33GHz Core i7-980X, followed by the similar speed top bin dual socket Xeon 5600 series varieties. These should overclock just as well, if not better, than their quad-core predecessors in the same socket, yet will add half again more cores and cache within the same TDP. And, oh yes, those AEC crypto instructions, too.

Note that most LGA-1366 single and dual socket mainboards - after a mandatory BIOS update - should take the new chippery no questions asked. Keep in mind, though, that the Tylersburg chipset in both its X58 desktop and i5500 server varieties is getting new slightly improved revisions for the coming CPUs, so a new mainboard with the updated chipset will be beneficial for the buyer. The old high-end motherboard users may not have enough benefits from replacing those unless they also look forward to getting USB3, SATA3 and other little improvements along the way, too. It wouldn't be bad if those improvements included reverting to PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports on the mainboards to avoid the USB CPU polling waste of time, by the way.

Oh yes, you will see the first easily overclockable dual socket LGA1366 mainboard, from EVGA this time, definitely followed by one from at least one major Taiwan vendor, too. The EVGA entry is a spiritual follow-on to the Intel Skulltrail, including even those two Nvidia Nforce 200 PCIe bridges - which I'd personally rather dump - yet it provides the incredible 96GB memory capacity, obviously a target for workstation users, not just gamers. The board should be out about the same time as the dual 32nm six-core Xeons, by the way.

Also, note that on the desktop Intel will for now have only a single entry, the high-end 980X, without any lower-cost, slower bins. This way, the desktop LGA1366 high-end platform again has a clear performance edge over the LGA1156 socket, where the quad-core Core i7 870 was dangerously close to the i7 975XE at a much lower price. This move restores the 'balance' between these two platforms for market positioning, and things most likely will stay this way, without major updates, till beyond year-end, when the first quad-core GPU-enriched Sandy Bridge entry should replace the LGA1156 platforms first.

However, on the servers and workstations front, Intel is expected to unleash a whole spread of speed grades across the low-power, mainstream and high-end ranges. Simply put, the dual Xeons can be priced much higher per chip, and secondly, these little babies will still have to hold AMD's Valencia and Magny-Cours processors at bay as well, just in case.

Talking about these two, expect AMD to quite possibly use the Ides of March period to announce its updated six-core and double six-core processors. The latter is what Magny-Cours is after all, two six core Valencia chips on a large MCM and even larger socket. Even with stepping improvements, Magny-Cours is still not expected to go much above 2.2GHz in production, even though overclocked units could reach close to 3.5GHz in lab tests. The constraints imposed by keeping the power and thermals right across 12 hungry cores and 4 memory channels are clear.

The single socket six-core chip - including its desktop version, Thuban, finally appearing - should come dangerously close to 3GHz this time. It would really be lovely if AMD could fairly quickly offer 3GHz six-core Phenom II X6 and Opteron units, as those would bring back a semblance of competition, albeit a limited one, to the high-end CPU arena. That's something that has been sorely missed for the past three years, frankly. I'd expect selected Phenom II X6's to even come close to 4GHz using good air cooling when overclocked, but let's see how it goes.

Talking about the high end, AMD's Magny-Cours does provide a very easy 4-socket glueless solution with up to 48 cores. So will the Intel Nehalem-EX or Xeon 7500 family, Chipzilla's top end chippery for ultra-reliable enterprise servers and, why not, large memory EDA or scientific desktop 3D supercomputers. However, the Xeon 7500 will also do it glueless for 8 sockets as well, delivering one up on the competitor, very likely before the end of next month.

Yes, there is a clock speed penalty for squeezing the 8 full cores and 24MB cache onto a single die, compared to 12 cores and 12 MB of total cache on two dies for AMD, but Intel's clock speed should, based on my expectations, still at the very least match that of Magny-Cours. On the other hand, Nehalem-EX will provide triple the amount of cache per core, as well as double the memory bandwidth per core. It is four serial links or a total of eight DDR3 memory channels per socket on the Intel entry, versus four DDR3 channels per socket on the AMD design. This may help quite a bit in memory-intensive applications.

In summary, announcements of six-core chips and those with multiples thereof will abound in the coming few weeks, with the sole exception of the "lucky" eight-core server Nehalem-EX in the latter part of this month. The performance gap between Intel and AMD will still remain at the usual 10 per cent to 15 per cent per core at the same clock and then add the clock speed difference, with the resulting price disparity, but at the very least there'll be more to choose from and compare, both on the market target and core count. So, look forward to a CPU-exciting month of March.

There will be plenty of new introductions, with associated system platform refreshes, new reviews and comparisons. We'll cover each family and market segment more in the individual post-launch stories, of course. µ


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