Processor technology: dual core comes to the fore

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COOL, QUIET, ALIVE: The new Athlon 64 X 2 processor will fuel AMD Live and make PCs Windows Vista-ready
COOL, QUIET, ALIVE: The new Athlon 64 X 2 processor will fuel AMD Live and make PCs Windows Vista-ready


A whole new level of graphical and multimedia experience unleashed

A PLAINTIVE song written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, was one of the all-time Beatles favourites: `Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty four?' It takes on a whole new meaning today - in the world of desktop and laptop personal computers, as major hardware and software players prepare to take the consumer (willing or not) into the new era of 64 bit computing, early in 2007.The magic date is likely to centre around the release by Microsoft, of its next operating system - Windows Vista - the first to be offered in versions that are tailored for a new 64-bit processing age. This promises a whole new level of graphical and multimedia experience, as well as features which are set to erase forever, the boundaries that separate the personal computer from other home entertainment devices like television, music systems and digital video player-recorders.

The magic bullet

The magic bullet that will enable all this - or so the leading chip makers tell us - consists of two essential components: the ability to handle data in strings of 64 rather than 32 bits; and the power of multi-threading or hyper-threading, that is, the ability to harness the power of dual (and soon, quadruple) processors on every silicon chip by dividing up the computational chore into multiple parallel streams. Remember Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer? He handed out brushes to all his friends so that they could simultaneously attack his aunt's garden fence with whitewash - and was paid for the pleasure - while he bit into his apple and relaxed. He had the basic idea of multi threading. Earlier this year, AMD was the first off the mark with the world's 64-bit desktop processor for the consumer PC market, that also featured multiple cores on one chip - the Athlon 64 X2 dual core - in two versions 4000+ and 5000+ which approximate to 2 gigahertz or 2.5 gigahertz clock speeds. But no one is talking gigahertz these days, camouflaging such things with clever numbering which fools nobody. To strengthen the case for going 64 bits, the company simultaneously unveiled the AMD Live! PC, tailored to showcase functionality that goes into what is being called the Mediacenter PC. This is a sort of `sangam' between PC and TV, combining the lean-forward-and-work productivity features of the former with the lean-back-and-relax controls (including a `remote') that one normally associates with a television set or its attachments like a music system or a DVD player. But what will 64 bit and dual core do for the average home PC owner - and if one were to buy a PC today, is it worth the additional cost of a chip that could set you back at least $ 350 (Rs 16,000)? The Hindu was enabled by AMD to try out a PC fuelled by an Athlon 64 X2 4800+ dual core processor. The graphics card was nVidia's GeForce 6200, which retails for around Rs 3,000.

Certain constraints

Indeed, it is pointless going in for dual core processor chips unless the graphics accelerator card can match and exploit its power. (It is perhaps no coincidence that AMD has recently acquired the graphics solutions provider, ATI for $ 5.4 billion.)AMD engineers warned me that unless the application had been written for multi threading, no dramatic improvement would be noticed. They were right. Your Internet Explorer or Powerpoint or Word is not going to function very differently just because you have an Athlon 64 X2 under the hood. I saw little difference when I used a Computer Aided Design (CAD) package that I am familiar with. But where the application has been tweaked by its makers for the new hyper-threaded era - it ran, palpably, blazingly fast. Adobe's Photoshop or the new omnibus application, Adobe Creative Suite, are a case in point. A long-term Photoshop user advised that the `acid' test was the blur tool. I tried a radial blur on a 1 MB-plus colour photo using two older PCs - both 32 bit single core machines using an Intel Pentium 4 and an equivalent AMD Athlon chip of 3-4 years' vintage. Both took over 60 seconds for the operation.

Even more dramatic

On the dual cored Athlon X2, it blurred in about 5 seconds. Those who regularly use computation-heavy Adobe tools like rendering will find the improvement even more dramatic. You do not have to be a professional to appreciate the advantages of dual core: Popular games like `Quake 4' or `Call of Duty 2' demonstrated a marked improvement in the realism of the graphics and the response to all those violent joystick and mouse-driven commands - in their hyperthreaded versions.

Number-crunching power

When Microsoft finally unleashes Vista, it will hopefully exploit such number-crunching multi-core power even more effectively across a whole range of standard applications including the new Office 2007 that is now in advanced beta. The 64-bit bite of chips like the new Athlon X2 will enable PCs to effectively work with the new generation of high definition video standards such as HD-DVD and Blu-Ray.his is not just because the makers want you to enable new levels of video quality: there is self interest too. Only 64 bit systems currently enable the type of digital management that the big Hollywood film studios demand before they release most of their products in DVD or allow video streaming on demand. In other words customers will probably have to upgrade to 64 bit processors in their PCs if they want to incorporate HD drives or enable themselves to receive video content on broadband lines. Last week Open Source guru Eric S. Raymond warned Linux developers that they too must recreate most of today's applications to run on 64 bit machines, unless they want to miss out on the last big chance to make the Linux desktop a widely prevalent reality instead of the geeks-only minority status it enjoys today.

Nobody is asking us

So there you have it: Will you still need me and feed me with new and more exciting software, asks the 64 bit processor. We are perhaps not so sure if we need all the bells and whistles that multi core 64 bit processing promises. But nobody is asking us.The industry has clearly decided that what is good for the chipmakers and the software writers is good for us. Only last month, Intel, announced its own broad Core2duo line up with 64-bit memory extensions. A year from now single core and 32 bit will be for sissies only. Do not say we did not warn you.

The Hindu presents the all-new Young World



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