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Two against one

The days of the single-core desktop chip are numbered

Last Updated July 25, 2007

AMD's Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core processor.

Outnumbered and outclassed by newer technology, the reign of the single-core computer chip is coming to an end.

In 2005, high-end computer consumers went gaga over the first dual-core processors designed for mainstream PCs and laptops. Dual-core processors have two computing brains built into the same chip. This increases the performance of computers and allows them to multitask more efficiently, while using the same amount of electricity as the older single-core chips.

Dual-core central processing units (CPUs) came at a hefty premium when they were introduced, but the market has changed drastically in recent months. Prices for dual-core machines have tumbled to the point where they're within reach of the average computer buyer, and the premium people used to pay for them is disappearing.

The next step in the evolution of the personal computer is multicore technology, which allows several processor cores to be built into one CPU. The market won't have long to wait: later this year, computer chip makers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) have unveiled quad-core chips for high-end PCs.

With two-core chips moving into the mainstream and four-core chips about to start appearing in the consumer market, analysts are giving traditional single-core chips a marketable life expectancy of only two to five more years.

Cores: Two brains are better than one

Prior to 2005, desktop and notebook computers had a single-core CPU. The CPU chip essentially works like the computer's brain, processing information and tasks.

The problem with the single-core chips was that as the cores got faster, they also generated more heat and used a lot more energy. As a result, computers would overheat and use a lot of power for both processing and cooling, driving up electric bills and resulting in abysmal battery life for mobile technology.

So, semiconductor companies such as Intel and AMD started researching other ways to create energy-efficient, fast processors. They found that the power consumed by a microprocessor increases exponentially with the speed of the core. That meant that lowering the core speed by just 20 per cent still allowed the processor to perform at about 85 per cent of its original capacity, but the power consumption was cut in half.

This led to the advent of the dual-core chip, which basically takes two processors and puts them inside one CPU chip.

"If we put two of those [lower-speed] cores together, we have 1.7 times the performance, and it's still consuming the power we started with," explains Intel Canada country manager Doug Cooper. "You're no worse off from a power point of view, and you're way better off from a performance point of view."

The adage that two brains are better than one is true when it comes to computers, he said. In a computer running a dual-core chip, one core can fully focus on the computer user's activities, while the other core can perform the background functions for operating, such as scanning for viruses and running other necessary programs and applications.

The benefits of dual-core and multi-core

Dual-core and multi-core processors offer higher performance, especially when running multiple tasks, without imposing any additional requirements for power, heating, ventilation, air conditioning or rack reconfiguration (such as new slots or outputs required for installation).

Dual-core: moving to mainstream

Since the introduction of dual-core technology in consumer PCs in 2005, the chips have been gaining momentum in the market. Simon Yates, vice-president and research director with Forrester Research, an independent technology and market research company, says dual-core chips aren't quite dominating sales yet, but he predicts they will rule the market by fall 2008.

"Probably within 18 months, the vast majority of desktops and laptops in the major markets, North America and Europe, will be dual-core or quad-core," he said.

Cooper says the dual-core chips have already gone mainstream. "I would say dual-core is about 90 per cent of what gets sold in desktops, about 80 per cent in notebooks."

Single-core's days are numbered

Demand still exists for single-core chips due to a small price advantage and because some technology is designed specifically for single-core CPUs, but that demand is expected to wane. Analysts predict they will remain on the market only for another two to five years.

Howard Locker, of computer manufacturer Lenovo, says there will always be demand, at an estimated one-quarter of the market, for entry-level and inexpensive computers. That market share is currently occupied by the single-core technology.

Intel's dual-core Core 2 Duo chip. Intel's dual-core Core 2 Duo chip.

"As a rule of thumb, the technology is replaced every 18 to 24 months," he said, adding that companies will generally maintain only three levels of technology at a time. That means dual-core should replace single-core on the low end of the market within two years.

Intel's Cooper agrees that there is always a segment of the market looking for cheaper products. But Intel also sees potential in the chips in the future in certain types of technology, he said, citing handheld devices and small-format notebooks. The current market for single-core chips outside of PCs also includes cellphones, embedded devices used in manufacturing, airplanes and other industrial uses.

Yates predicts that consumers will be able to buy single-core chips in entry-level computers until 2012.Until low-end demand is satisfied with dual-core technology, most likely when quad-core takes over the mainstream market in a few years' time, he says the demand in handheld devices and low-end markets will sustain production of the single-core chips.

"As each new generation of chip comes along, the previous generation gets pushed down. Once you hit the lowest machine, there's no need for that chip anymore," he explained. "It's a gradual sort of [process], being pushed down the line to the low end of the market."

He says the downward move will be helped as prices for multicore CPUs continue to drop, on average by an expected 10 to 12 per cent a year.

Software

The other factor sustaining single-core demand is software, says James Staten, Forrester's principal analyst.

"Many applications aren't designed to do things in parallel [with work divided up and handled by two CPU cores], and thus can't take advantage of this type of architecture very well. Most desktop PC software falls into this category, so the benefits of even dual-core processors are not two times the performance, as would be implied," he said, adding that it could take several years for many software applications to be modified to take advantage of multiple cores.

A closeup view of the circuitry in AMD's Phenom Quad-Core processor. A closeup view of the circuitry in AMD's Phenom Quad-Core processor.

"In new PCs, yes, single-core may disappear very soon, it could be as soon as 2009, but there will continue to be legitimate markets for single-core CPUs for several years," he said.

Will quad-core soon be king?

Looking to the future, Intel and AMD have both announced quad-core processors for later in 2007. Intel's Cooper predicts that the new four-core chips will be commonly available in new computers by the 2007 holiday season and into the new year.

"As we look into 2008, dual-core will still be the workhorse, but quad-core will be the mainstream," he said

And multi-core chips won't stop at quad-core CPUs. Cooper said Intel has already done research using up to 80 cores for scientific applications.

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