Penryn Puts Quad-Core on Ice

UPDATED: The first in Intel’s new Penryn line of processors is due in just three weeks, and the initial tests show that, while performance isn’t making any great leaps, it will be much less volatile than older, high-end Intel chips.

That’s the conclusion of tests performed by Sharky Extreme, which does hardware evaluation and testing and is a sister site of Vince Freeman, managing editor of Sharky Extreme, said he found the new processor far more stable than Intel’s previous top of the line.

“This is the first quad-core I would think of putting on my desktop,” Freeman said. Intel’s current top of the line, the QX6850, needed constant cooling and had its fans going at full power. Not the QX9650. “My fan actually turns off. It was a real revelation to have the fans spinning nice and low.”

Intel is launching its top-of-the-line Penryn processor, the QX9650, on Nov. 11. The company hasn’t set a price for the QX9650, but it will likely run around $999, like the QX6850. An Intel spokesperson said a total of 15 new processors are planned between Nov. 11 and year-end, which will cover a wide variety of price and performance ranges.

Penryn is the overarching name for Intel’s product refresh built on the 45nm manufacturing process. There are two desktop processor code-names under the Penryn name: Yorkfield and Wolfdale. Wolfdale is the dual-core version and Yorkfield is the quad-core product. The QX9650, then, is part of the Yorkfield line.

The two new lines retain the same basic microarchitecture as the Core 2 processor line with some tweaks to the internals. What’s significant is the die shrink, from 65nm to 45nm, and the use of the new high-k and metal gate technology.

High-k and metal-gate technology allowed Intel to keep shrinking its transistors and keep Moore’s Law on track. Without this breakthrough, Intel was facing the very real possibility of manufacturing and performance limits.

A benefit of the new design process is a much lower power draw. On identical hardware save the processor, Freeman noticed that the QX9650 drew about 50 watts less than the QX6850.

He said there were improvements performance-wise, especially in such areas as video encoding, but nothing spectacular. Most improvements over the QX6850 were in the 8 percent to 12 percent range. It will run in newer motherboards that support the QX6850 but will likely need a BIOS  upgrade.

Like the QX6850, the QX9650 will be a 3.0GHz quad core processor with a 1333MHz front-side bus, but with 12MB of cache instead of 8MB. Intel is not expected to ship a complete line of dual- and quad-core Penryn chips for desktop, server and mobile until the first quarter of next year.

Penryn is a bump in performance before the next big leap. The Nehalem line, due in late 2008, will feature an entirely new microarchitecture that does away with the frontside bus and will feature genuine quad-core processors.

The current designs for both Yorkfield and the quad-core Xeon family is to put two dual-core processors on one chip package. AMD has made no bones about this fact, or that its Barcelona family of Opteron server processors and upcoming Phenom desktop chips are genuine quad-core designs.

Updated to correct the release schedule.

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