Desktop chips zip past 4GHz; next stop 5GHz?

There's still a desire, if not a need, for clock rate speed, though increased attention is paid to mobility and extending battery life

Mobility has all but eclipsed speed and anything else as the capability garnering the most attention in desktop processors.

Today, the chip world is seemingly focused on producing low power chips with integrated graphics accelerators that perform swiftly and extend battery life.

Many of these chips run well under 2 GHz, which is more than enough to enable vendors to create fast and fan-less tablets and laptops, such as the Samsung Chromebook.

But clock rate speeds still matter to some.

AMD this month, without any real fanfare, announced in a blog post that it had updated its FX processing line, which now includes a 4-core FX-4350 with a 4.2 GHz base and the capability of hitting 4.3 GHz for some workloads, its highest desktop speed yet.

But in terms of overall performance AMD says its 8-core FX-8350, released in October, with a 4.0 GHz base and 4.2 GHz Max Turbo, may deliver the best results in multi-threaded environments, despite slightly less speed.

This true for Intel as well. Clock speed is only one aspect of performance.

Intel's highest clocked desktop processor is the i7-3970X Processor Extreme Edition. It has six cores and runs at 3.5 GHz base with a max turbo frequency of 4 GHz. But this Intel chip doesn't have QuickSync video capabilities, which improve video rendering, so the fastest isn't always best for all workloads.

AMD is rumored to be working on a 5 GHz chip for the FX line, Hexus reported last month.

Mark Papermaster, AMD's CTO and Apple's former development chief, in an interview, would not confirm the report. If anything Papermaster said he discounts clock speed as a performance metric, and sees it as something that works against power efficiency.

The key to performance is to build strong elements around the processor, namely using embedded GPUs to accelerate workloads "in a way that's not dependent on pushing the frequency higher and higher," said Papermaster.

Intel hasn't released the performance specs for its new Haswell chips, the fourth generation of its Core processor line, that's due next month. Early reports show it running at clock speeds similar to what's now available.

Intel isn't commenting on the specs, but the company has been saying, in general, that the Haswell chips will improve graphics performance by close to three times.

Intel's fastest chip cost around $1,000, while AMD's fastest is at $122.

Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64, said AMD's new chip will likely be targeted at gamers on a budget. While Intel's chip, with its graphic capabilities, will used by enterprises.

Brookwood does not believe that the chip makers are focused on clock rates. While chip makers may continue to try to push up clock rates within existing designs, "they aren't going to go off and make a whole new design just in order to get better clock frequencies."

Rich Partridge, a Gartner analysts, said clock speed, if it's pushed ever higher, may simply be a matter of bragging rights.

"Where the true performance comes is being able to use multiple cores and graphics processing," said Partridge.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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