May 14, 2007

Quad-core power unleashed (almost)

Written By Mark Boslet, Mercury News

Consumer research shows that when given a choice PC buyers opt for computer chips with multiple cores, or computing brains. More cores equal more power is an easy concept for them to understand.

They might want to think twice before snapping up the industry’s latest quad-core computers.

Quad-core computers began shipping in November and have been billed as the business’s next big thing – a crop of machines with a leap in performance over the dual- and single-core boxes that make up the bulk of today’s sales.

Instead of one or two tiny calculating engines, or cores, per chip, they have four, letting a PC multitask by assigning separate jobs to each core.

But most consumers won’t get the promised performance boost for many years to come – if at all. That’s because the software they run to roam the net, write reports and exchange e-mail isn’t written to take advantage of quad-core chips and won’t be for years to come, experts say. Some of the programs may never need the extra performance quad-core chips provide.

“Once you get beyond dual-core processors, there’s not a lot of work (designed) to take advantage of the additional processor cores,” said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. “The benefit is slight.”

The issue is one that is roiling the computer industry. Computer games and video editing programs are often singled out as software that will benefit from quad cores because they can be written to farm out work to multiple cores. But the list of these more computational-intensive programs is short. Traditional word processors and browsers aren’t on it.
The changing landscape has developers rethinking how to design software. Some say the re-examination could spawn new innovation – with computers that respond to spoken commands and interact with users. The creativity could ultimately reshape the 30-year-old PC software business and the way people use their machines.

“The onus is on us to think of new things to do that may have been out of the question before because they took so long,” said John Nack, senior product manager at Adobe Systems. “It is a really challenging state of affairs.”

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