A cool duo

Many PC makers will start shipping systems with dual-core processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices this summer, a move that initially will benefit high-performance users but eventually could impact mainstream desktop computers.

"Ultimately, it's where everybody will be going," said David Daoud, an analyst at technology research firm IDC.

Dual-core designs have been available in high-end server chips from IBM and Sun Microsystems for a while. But Dell, Hewlett-Packard and others will soon begin shipping desktop computer systems with dual-core chips, potentially bringing the market one of the biggest speed boosts in years.

Dual-core designs join two processors within the same silicon die. The product has a significant advantage over a single processor. When two chips do the processing work, they can carry out more calculations while running at slower speeds than if one chip did all the work. Intel officials liken the design to a four-lane highway that allows twice as many cars to pass than if the vehicles were driving down a smaller, two-lane road.

The innovation removes a major technical hurdle for CPU architects: how to achieve faster performance without overheating chips or motherboards, which contributes to hardware failures and shortened life cycles.

However, two considerations may delay the purchase of dual-core desktop PCs. One is software. Dual-core machines run best with applications designed for multithreading, the ability to run multiple stages of a processing task simultaneously rather than sequentially. Software developers will need to customize most standard desktop computer programs to handle multithreading activities. Until then, performance advantages will appear mainly when users are running multiple applications — say, writing a report in a word-processing program while antivirus software scans for malicious files in the background.

The second initial obstacle to widespread adoption of dual-core desktop computers is price. Bargain PCs cost $1,000 or less, while leading-edge dual-core machines will cost two or three times that amount. That pricing could be prohibitive for cost-conscious public-sector budgets and will probably relegate dual-core units to high-end workstations for the near future.

But as the technology matures and prices decline, dual-core processors could find a home on desktop PCs.

"Dual-core processors allow for dramatic increases in speed and efficiency, and as they move to desktops, we'll see a dramatic blip in performance," said Vic Berger, lead technologist and business development manager for CDW Government.

About the Author

Alan Joch is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire.

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