Sunday, December 9, 2012

In the Fall, a young man’s fancy turns to microprocessors.

Intel’s headquarters are in California, but its biggest operating hub is Washington County. This county includes the suburbs of Portland on the west side such as Beaverton, Hillsboro (where my dad lives), Forest Grove (where my mom and dad used to live), and even far west Banks. The tech giant employs about 15,000 in Oregon. Two Intel engineers live next door to my dad, and we always enjoy visiting with them and learning what the latest offerings from Intel are all about. The most recent suit of chips from this microprocessor giant includes the easy to remember Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 families.

I particularly like the pedigree of the new, “smokin’” i7-980X. This $999, 3.33GHz (with automatic overclocking to 3.6GHz) processor is Intel’s flagship offering in the consumer market. It’s the first desktop-grade CPU with six physical cores, but hyper threading yields 12 virtualized ones. The six cores share 12 MB of integrated L3 cache. The end result is a measurable performance boost. A 32-nanometer design, the 980X is fully compatible with existing X58-chipset motherboards running an LGA 1366 socket. X58-based motherboards use Intel’s quickpath interconnect (QPI) architecture. QPI replaces the front side bus design of the now antiquated Core 2 chips (what my high end HP computer runs), for faster and greater bandwidth for routing communications between the motherboard, system components, GPU, and the central processor.

There are more 32-nanometer chips to come from Intel including the Sandy Bridge CPU family. But 22-nanometer chips are on the horizon with the announced Ivy Bridge designs from Intel. Look for the GPU to be integrated on the same silicon as the CPU and a new Advanced Vector Extension instruction set for Nehalem processors which should boost media encoding, 3D modeling, and video and audio processing performance. AMD has big plans too including CPU/GPU mashups and DirectX 11-compatible GPU designs which will continue the Turbo Core overclocking that has been so successful so far — although very power hungry.

Intel splits its mainstream desktop and mobile CPU offerings into three sections: The Core i7, Core i5, and Core i3 lines, representing, respectively, high-end, midrange, and entry-level products. That doesn’t always mean that a Core i5 chip will be slower than a Core i7, nor does it mean all Core i7 chips always have four physical cores. Making sense of all these specifications and building a complete system that truly optimizes the performance is key. Of course, the AMD Anthlon II chips are also high performance silicon, but my vote is on Intel.

Well, then what can a poor boy do; except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band? Think I might take a trip back to Fry’s, buy me an X58 motherboard, and start rolling my own. After my recent poor quality experiences with HP (failed NVROM led to motherboard replacement), Compaq (problems with battery and keyboard), Sony (don’t ask — it’s a piece of crap), and even Dell systems (although not my Dell), maybe it is time to try a homebrew. I can’t do worse than those outfits. Wallet: check; Visa card: check; full tank of gas: check. Time to head for Fry’s.

Maybe I need to move our here to the “Silicon Forest” and try my hand at processor architecture … or maybe I should just retire and get out of the way of these new, young engineers. Hmmmm, what can a poor boy do?

Originally written on September 9, 2010.

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