November 27, 2008

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Core to the core
New processors speed up Christmas

By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

It is no longer all about the Pentiums.

It hasn’t been for a while, really. Ever since Intel introduced the first Core Duo processors in 2006, the Pentium brand name has been sinking into disuse. Intel still slaps it on a few products, but it’s no longer their flagship item. The company’s new golden brand is Core, and the latest iteration actually offers a significant performance boost over the previous generation, so if you’re in the market for a new PC, you might want to pay attention.

First, a bit about the Core brand name itself. Unlike Pentium, Core means something — it refers to the heart of the processor, the real number-crunching part, the core. The Core Duo had, you guessed it, two cores on each processor. It was like getting two processors in one. If one of the cores didn’t pass Intel’s quality control, they’d disable it and sell the processor as a Core Solo.

The next generation, the Core 2 Duo, also had two cores; the “2” in the middle just meant it was a step up from the Core Duo. This generation also introduced a four-core model, the Core 2 Quad. There was also a Core 2 Extreme, which came in both two- and four-core versions.

Confused yet? Don’t feel bad. I haven’t even mentioned the cache memory, the “processor number” Intel assigns or, heaven forbid, the actual clock speed — you know, the gigahertz. Each one of those factors helps distinguish one processor from another in terms of performance for different types of tasks.

In any case, the brandest-newest processor from Intel is called the Core i7. Why “i7” instead of, say, “3,” the number that comes after “2”? Got me. It means nothing, it looks vaguely cool, it’s just a brand, let’s move on.

The Core i7 implements not only four cores, but also a technology from the late Pentium days called Hyper-Threading. A sequence of work that a processor does for a computer program is called a “thread”; a four-core processor can normally be expected to handle four threads simultaneously. Hyper-Threading doubles that by throwing two threads on each core. Intel ratchets things up a little more by allowing one core to speed up if its brethren aren’t being taxed to their limit.

All this gimmickry results in the first real performance jump in years. Unlike the Core 2 Duo, which offered real but tepid improvement over the Core Duo, the Core i7 has been inspiring some rave reviews from early adopters and benchmarkers. The Tom’s Hardware Web site measured a 3.2GHz Core i7 Extreme Edition as 16 percent faster, on average, than a 3.2GHz Core 2 Extreme. The boost for things like video encoding was even bigger. AnandTech found similar gains, with the most compelling improvement in 3-D rendering programs: anywhere from 13 to 60 percent faster. When you add in the fact that Core i7 processors are also cheaper than Core 2 Extremes at the same clock speed, the bang vs. buck argument is hard to ignore.

That doesn’t mean they’re cheap — the slowest comes in a bit north of $300 all by its lonesome. Complete low-end desktops with humble Pentium dual-core or Celeron processors can be had for that. And current PCs can’t be upgraded to a Core i7 because it needs a different, bigger socket on the motherboard. But if you’re looking for the latest, kick-buttingest PC you can get, well, you know what to do.