Platform Trends: Intel’s Dynamic Duo

Buy One Core, Get One Free

Intel may be taking it on the chin in the desktop CPU contest, but its Centrino brand rules the laptop category, where AMD is well behind in both market share and brand awareness. This has been true since the early days of the Pentium M versus Turion 64, but now Intel has raised the stakes with a dual-core platform: The aptly named Core Duo processor was introduced early this year, but the actual mass-market release has taken place more recently. Today the Core Duo product lines are more fleshed out; all of the major notebook vendors are on board; and the Core Duo is taking the mobile market by storm.

Intel’s timing couldn’t be better. Dual-core desktop sales are booming, with virtually all new mainstream and performance PCs packing dual-core power from either Intel or AMD. That level of exposure has resulted in high demand for a similar mobile platform, as it’s very difficult to use a Pentium D or Athlon 64 X2 desktop and then move to a single-core Pentium M or Turion 64. Speaking from experience, you feel as if you’ve traveled back in time, to a place before dual-core existed … and it’s not a very nice place.

Intel’s New Ace

The Core Duo is a 65-nanometer-process part that essentially combines two Pentium M cores on a single processor die, along with a shared 2MB of Level 2 cache (which Intel calls Smart Cache). It follows the basic recipe of the Pentium D 900 series and Athlon 64 X2 desktop CPUs, and provides excellent multithreading and multitasking for its class. Two different models are available, with the Core Duo T series offering standard power management and clock speeds from 1.66GHz to 2.16GHz, while the low-voltage L series is offered at 1.50 and 1.66GHz clock speeds.

The Pentium M is still clocked slightly higher, with the 2.26GHz Pentium M 780 holding an edge over the 2.16GHz Core Duo T2600. Clock speed, however, is obviously not a fair comparison when it comes to single- versus dual-core processors, with multithreaded applications receiving a significant performance boost and — since Windows XP supports the technology — desktop multitasking is unrivaled.

In fact, dual-core processing may actually have a greater impact on mobile than desktop platforms, as notebooks are used mostly for business productivity or multimedia entertainment. These are optimum areas for the dual-core advantage. Not only are many of these applications already multithreaded (and the list is growing), but the last bastion of single-core dominance, enthusiast-level 3D gaming, is not a priority for even the most hardcore laptop owners.

There are other improvements over the Pentium M, such as a faster front-side bus — the Core Duo steps up to a 667MHz bus, while the fastest Pentium M parts utilize a 533MHz bus and the Celeron M is mired at 400MHz. The faster bus offers some performance advantages right off the bat, in the forms of greater system bandwidth. Although dual-channel DDR-2 is already standard on current Pentium M portables, the extra 25 percent of theoretical memory bandwidth is like a free upgrade without increasing CPU or memory clock speeds.

There are some cracks in the Core Duo’s armor: The processor does not support Intel’s EM64T 64-bit technology, has no on-die memory controller, and carries some negatives from the aging Pentium III architecture. But these are effectively countered by the enhanced cache performance and marvelous multitasking.

Price Penalty: Zero

There are two exceptionally impressive features of the Core Duo CPU, and both relate to Intel’s ability to offer the second core essentially for free. The primary factor is price — the current retail price of a Centrino Duo notebook is virtually equivalent to what a comparable Pentium M model cost last year. Certainly, the price of Pentium M notebooks has dropped in response, but the Core Duo has not had a significant overall effect on laptop prices. Dell has a line of low-cost Inspiron Core Duo models, and vendors like Acer, Toshiba, Gateway, and Lenovo offer Core Duo laptops for under $1,000.

Heat and power requirements are also remarkable, almost as if the second core isn’t there: The standard Core Duo’s rated power consumption is only 31 watts, with a measly 15 watts for the low-power version, compared to approximately 27 and 10 watts for the standard and low-voltage Pentium M chips respectively. This is an incredible accomplishment, as opting for a low-power Core Duo actually buys you a dual-core processor with lower power and heat specifications than a standard Pentium M.

Intel is able to do this through a number of ways, the most prominent being 65-nanometer technology — which provides a smaller core and L2 cache and a higher clock-speed ceiling with less power consumption. Features like dual-core on demand and dynamic cache sizing really make the most of the design, with innovative methods of lowering power consumption based on system demands. Intel’s Enhanced SpeedStep also makes an appearance, letting the Core Duo dynamically switch voltages and core speeds based on application demand.

AMD Turion Over in Its Grave

The Intel Core Duo has burst onto the market with incredible speed, and user acceptance levels are extremely high. This spells bad news for AMD, which not long ago was riding a wave of expectations for its Turion 64. In fact, it’s kind of sad that AMD finally releases a mobile processor capable of competing and even surpassing the Pentium M, only to find itself up against the powerful Core Duo. We checked a few major online dealers, and even this shortly after introduction, the number of Core Duo notebooks for sale easily outnumbered the Turion 64 choices. AMD is slated to release a dual-core Turion 64 soon, but until then, every day loses the company more of the notebook market. Hey, this must be what Intel feels like on the desktop side.

CPU and Memory Price Update »

Intel CPU Prices

Spring is definitely in the air, and Intel CPU prices have finally started to drop — nothing too significant, but after several months of flatline pricing, any downward movement is welcome. The most interesting across-the-board price cuts came on the Pentium D 800 and 900 series, with the more expensive models falling by larger amounts. The Pentium Extreme Edition 965 is still virtually vaporware in the retail market, but availability of the bargain-priced Pentium D 805 continues to increase.

Our top value pick falls somewhere in between: The Pentium D 940 represents the best combination of price and performance for a new Intel performance PC. The CPU combines a cooler-running, lower-power 65-nanometer core running at 3.2GHz, 2x2MB of L2 cache, and a retail price under $430. The same-clock-speed Pentium D 840 is definitely priced right, but its 90-nanometer engineering and 2x1MB cache place it a bit further down the list.

While the Pentium 4 and Pentium D price list was more active than usual, Celeron D prices continued to languish. Although price drops were nominal at best, there’s some consolation in that no Celeron D processor increased in price. As a 3.06GHz Celeron D 345 is the best bet for entry-level Socket 478 systems, while the while the Celeron D 346J brings the same clock speed plus EM64T support to LGA775 platforms. Another interesting option for value buyers is the 2.66GHz Pentium D 805, which provides dual-core performance for less than $130.

Intel Upgrades

Our Pentium 4 upgrades cover both the Socket 478 and LGA775 platforms and stipulate at least an 800MHz front-side bus. It’s getting tougher to locate many of the 478-pin Pentium 4 parts, but there are still a few popular upgrade processors in stock. The Pentium 4/3.4E Prescott is one example, although its availability is shrinking. The /3.4E sports a best-in-class 3.4GHz clock speed for a very nice combination of performance and value. LGA775/Socket T platform owners have more leeway in terms of selection and availability, with a higher clock-speed ceiling of 3.8GHz, but we think the 3.4GHz Pentium 4 650’s 2MB of Level 2 cache and attractive retail price are the more potent combination.

Before making any CPU upgrade, first confirm which front-side bus speeds your current Intel platform supports, along with ensuring proper BIOS, memory, and cooling requirements. Keeping track of Intel’s model numbers is a full-time job, especially with 800MHz-bus Pentium 4 Northwood (“C”), Prescott (“E”), and Extreme Edition (EE) processors sharing the same clock speeds. The Pentium 4 500 and 600 series use the LGA775 package, which is incompatible with the older Socket 478 interface, while the dual-core Pentium D and EE processors are unfortunately not compatible with Intel 915/925-chipset LGA775 motherboards and require updated platforms.

AMD CPU Prices

In a surprising turnaround, with Intel prices dropping, AMD has stayed the course with virtually no savings since our last report. With AMD working too hard on its upcoming 65-nanometer-process transition to introduce new high-end processors, the filter-down effect we all depend on has trickled away to almost nothing. Our overall top choices on the AMD side are dual-core models: The Athlon 64 X2 3800+ (2.0GHz) and 4800+ (2.4GHz) are solid choices for mainstream and high-end buyers, while the Athlon 64 4200+ is in a class by itself. With a price around the $350 mark and a clock speed of 2.2GHz, it’s a near-perfect mix of price and performance.

When higher-end Athlon 64 prices are stagnant, it’s a safe bet that AMD’s entry-level Sempron models aren’t moving and shaking. In fact, the only news this week was another unfortunate price increase for the popular Sempron 3300+, which has passed the $100 mark and is nearing $110. This is getting a bit too expensive for an entry-level desktop, and the sub-$95 Sempron 3100+ (1.8GHz) is a more viable option. If you want higher performance, the 754-pin Athlon 64 3000+ offers a 2.0GHz clock speed and 512K of L2 cache for under $120.

AMD Upgrades

Our AMD processor upgrade recommendations span both Socket 754 and Socket 939 platforms. The formerly high-end 754-pin package has been relegated to entry-level Sempron duties, but the 2.4GHz Athlon 64 3400+ — one of the last 754-pin models AMD released — still offers a ton of performance and value. The 3400+ is also fully compatible with any Socket 754 platform, with no compatibility or installation issues apart from ensuring proper cooling for the higher-clocked CPU.

There’s a lot more selection among Socket 939 upgrades, thanks to AMD thinking ahead and providing a single platform base for all Athlon 64, 64 FX, and 64 X2 processors — everything from the Athlon 64 3000+ all the way up to the 2.8GHz Athlon 64 FX-57, along with all the dual-core Athlon 64 X2 models. The X2 is the logical upgrade choice, requiring at most a BIOS update for full support, with the 2.2GHz Athlon 64 X2 4200+ offering the best value. Of course, depending on your current processor, the higher-end Athlon 64 X2 4400+, 4600+, 4800+, or even FX-60 are all viable options.

The choice of Socket 754 or Socket 939 upgrade CPUs is dependent on motherboard support, so be sure to check platform, BIOS, memory, and CPU specifications before making the buy. A configuration-info page on AMD’s Web site confirms motherboard support for a given CPU.

Memory Trends

Overall memory prices have dipped over the last few weeks, with single-module DDR being no exception. Once again, larger-capacity 1GB and 2GB modules saw the lion’s share of activity, with prices of 512MB and lower sizes remaining mostly consistent.

Matched-pair DDR pricing followed right alongside, with some significant savings in this area. The larger-capacity dual-channel kits were the most affected, with name-brand 2x1GB pairs showing a lot of downward movement.

While DDR memory showed notable price decreases, that was nothing compared to the DDR-2 segment’s serious price drops. Costs of 1GB and 2x1GB configurations were headed south, with higher-speed DDR-2/800 and /1000 getting most of the juicy cuts.



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