Core Wars or the Journey from Single to Multi-core Processors

Computer speed used to be determined by actual speed - the speed at which its processor rotated.

But more and more, speed has become a function of capacity as manufacturers shove more central processing units or cores into their processors to boost power and speed. Just as people are getting used to dual-core processors, computers with four cores or quad-cores are coming on the market. Some servers and workstations already have chips with eight cores.

Just a few years ago, several computers had to be linked together to get serious computing power. Then, multiple printed circuits, each with their own processor were housed in one computer. Now multi-core processors, chips with multiple central processing units that have their own independent processor, are here. Large systems have given way to smaller, energy efficient units, says Carsten Albrecht, a computer scientist at the Institute for Technical Information at the University of Lübeck.

"The new standard is computing power per watt."

Advanced integration techniques and energy savings were major reasons for developing multiple core processors. Another reason was the rotational speed of the old processors. As they got faster, they gave off more heat ... sometimes reaching uncomfortable levels.

The first dual core chips hit the consumer market at Easter 2005 and companies like IBM have sold quad-core processors since the end of that year. Intel launched them on the market in early 2007. But as long as prices remains higher than 2,000 euros (around $2,700), consumer interest will remain limited. It might take systems like AMD's planned new generation of two and four core chips processors to turn some gamers onto quad-core.

The average shopper probably won't have to get involved in the core wars.

"If I only need Word and the Internet, then I check that the computer is affordable, not whether it has two or more cores," says Albrecht. But people who work intensely with their computers will quickly see the advantages of an additional core.

Background programs that use a lot of computing power, like virus scanners, firewalls or desktop search engines don't slow down the computer as much as multiple core processors.

The multiple cores also reduce the risk of a complete system crash. But multiple cores do not solve every problem. If a processor's capacity - particularly its second cache where temporary data is stored - is not up to standard, the multiple cores will not help much says Stiftung Warentest, a Berlin-based consumer product information organization. The cache should be as large as possible for data intensive operations.

It's also important to remember that two cores do not necessarily double computer power. Nor do four cores quadruple power. Operating systems like Windows, Mac OS or Linux can divide duties between the different cores. But the time saved by this simultaneous work also depends on whether the program being used is designed to use multiple cores.

To get more speed, chip circuits are shrinking down to nanometre sizes. The number of transistors in a processor will continue to double every two years and researchers will continue to encode more sophisticated commands into the silicon. There are already processors with eight cores on the market with no end in sight for processor capacity.


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