Desktop multiprocessing: Not so fast

Not every application can be reprogrammed for multicore architectures, and some bottlenecks will always remain. Here's why.

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Market shift

If the application vendors have been slow to adjust to multicore, the public has not. According to the hardware vendors, buyers these days are counting cores instead of gigahertz.

"In the past, people really cared about the frequency of the processor and about making sure they had the latest speed," says Bob Grim, an AMD marketing executive. "Now we see them being more concerned about what kind of visual experience they will get."

(Perhaps for old time's sake, a few hobbyists and gamers still try overclocking, ramping their processor clock speeds from, typically, about 3.2GHz to 3.8GHz or even 4.5GHz, using ordinary heat sinks. If overclocking doesn't work, the system typically just reboots and the owner can try again at a lower speed, Grim explains. The record he was aware of was a 3.2GHz processor boosted to 6.9GHz, using liquid helium as a coolant.)

"Gigahertz used to be the metric for buyers, but now there is tiering," agrees Glenn Jystad, senior manager at PC vendor Acer Inc. in Irvine, Calif. "Single-core processors are limited to entry-level systems, while dual-core is a step up, and you really start to realize performance in the quad-core category, which is now mainstream." He predicts that three-core processors, promoted by AMD, will fade away by the end of the year, as there is little price difference compared to the more powerful quad-core systems.

Meanwhile, performance issues aside, vendors favor multicore processors for their ability to help reduce system power consumption. If the other three heads of a quad-core system have nothing to do, "you can put them to sleep," Turley says. "Being able to throttle back is one of the charming side-effects of multi-core processing."

"Using multiple cores will let us get more performance while staying within the power envelope," agrees Acer's Jystad. "Today's 95-watt Intel quad-core processor is substantially more powerful than the 95-watt Pentiums of three years ago."

But regardless, notes Alfs at Intel, "Moore's Law continues. We continue to integrate more and more capability onto the processor and the computer." But the chief result, he indicates, will be more cores.

Lamont Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio. He can be reached at lwood@texas.net .

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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