Opinion: Should you switch to quad-core now?
Admitted, the question whether to upgrade or not to upgrade to a quad-core processor won't be really problem many buyers of these pricey new processors will spend much time on. If you got the money to spend and it has to best, you will go after the QX6700.
But let's imagine for just a moment that you want to buy a new PC this Christmas or you want to upgrade your aging desktop PC with a faster processor. Do you buy a QX6700 and spend the extra cash or do you go with a fast X6800 dual-core (or an overclocked E-series CPU), which should be available for less money? Or do you wait for AMD's 4x4 or even for AMD's native quad-core in mid-2007?
Let's have a closer look
An upgrade to a quad-core will set you back about $1200, assumed that you already own a motherboard that can accommodate the 775-pin processor. The same price will be charged by many system builders if you step up from a Core Duo E6300, which makes the QX6700 one of the most expensive CPU in the history of desktop processors. On the other side, you practically get two Core 2 Duo E6700 processors that are merged into one package. Those processors currently sell for an average of $491, according to Pricegrabber.com. That in mind, the price of the QX6700 doesn't look so bad anymore, considering the fact that we are talking about a piece of silicon that is available only in limited quantities.
Besides the fact that you can't buy a consumer desktop with two Core 2 Duo processors today, the quad-core QX6700 promises to deliver more performance and hides potential for overclocking. Intel says the performance gains can approach 80%. Of course, only applications that support the processors four cores and can run multiple threads simultaneously can take advantage of the added horsepower. Examples of software that will like quad-cores are especially multimedia applications or video and image editing. In such scenarios, the QX6700 can nearly double the processing performance of a dual-core PC.
One application area that cannot quite handle the extra cores yet is gaming. Valve, developer of the Half-Life series recently explained its multi-core gaming strategy in detail and promised to bring multicore capability to its games in the first half of 2007. If Valve can translate its vision into reality, quad-core machines will be able to do stunning things with game code and enable, for example, physics simulations. Tom Leonard, one of Valve's multi-core gurus, told me that the first generation of dual-cores were somewhat of an disappointment for game developers, which turned very quickly into hope with the Core 2 Duo and sparked excitement with the quad-core.
While game developers are likely to have to invest more time and money into their games to take advantage of multi-core technology, games will become more "present" for the user. Leonard explained that "game worlds will be much more responsive to a player" and we will see a "transition where game characters will be as smart and interesting as they are good looking right now." Valve appears to be a game developer that may be playing an important role in determining how multi-core capable games will look like in the near future, but the company still hesitates to actually recommend a quad-core upgrade to its gamers. "We won't tell them to upgrade, and that is not really the question," Leonard said. "Our users will upgrade anyway."
So, will users with quad-cores have an advantage over users who are running dual-cores? Valve says no. "People tend to make this problem a little more complicated than it really is. We never would introduce a feature which would depend on a piece of hardware and could result in better players just because of that. We want to make our customers happy. Doing something like that would work against that goal, it's that simple," Leonard told me.
There is clearly a way that leads to multi-core gaming and multi-core computers will not only be able to run those games faster, they will also enable new features such as more physics and artificial intelligence (AI). But realistically, we are not there yet and even if 20 games are promised to support multi-core gaming by the end of 2007, that is still a small portion of the whole gaming market. If you want to use your computer mainly for gaming and are somewhat on a budget, then a quad-core CPU is certainly not necessary at this time.
Indications from Intel's roadmap
In short, the transition to quad-core will be happening on a much slower pace than the transition from single-core to dual-core. The QX6700 will remain Intel's flagship processor at least until the end of Q3 2007 and most likely during Q4 as well. According to industry sources, Intel will add a 2.4 GHz Q6600 quad-core in January 2007, which will serve as high-end mainstream processor. The Q6600 will be introduced for around $850 and is likely to remain a pricey processor throughout the year. Also, Intel will keep the quad-core production low - at less than 5% of total desktop processor output. Translation: Waiting a couple months won't get you a quad-core for substantially less money. If you want a quad-core processor, it won't make much of a difference if you buy it today or next April.
The first native Intel quad-core could surface as early as late 2007. "Penryn" will be a 45 nm processor and is expected to bring some performance enhancements and consume significantly less power than a Kentsfield processor.
What about AMD?
Your guess is as good as mine. There is little we know about the upcoming 2-processor platform 4x4 and we know even less about the native quad-core, code-named "Agena." 4x4 is an interesting concept, which may not show its full potential with dual-core processors. It will get more interesting with the Agena FX quad-cores, which will be supported by 4x4 boards. There is a good chance that an AMD-based enthusiast PC can house more processor cores (for substantially more money) than an Intel-based system by mid of 2007.
However, 4x4 will be more limited in its use than Intel's quad-core processor. Only Windows Vista Ultimate supports two processor sockets; Vista Basic, Premium and Business do not support 2-socket systems. Running two 4x4 dual-cores under Vista Basic, Premium or Business will be a clearly inferior solution to an Intel quad-core system.
AMD typically stresses the fact that the QX6700 cannot be considered a real quad-core processor, as it is built from two dual-cores. The dual-die concept offers certain advantages, such as flexible assembly of the quad-cores and higher yield rates, but brings also some disadvantages, such as a potentially higher power consumption than a native quad-core. In terms of performance, we have very little visibility what advantages a native quad-core will offer. At least to Valve, it doesn't matter: Company founder Gabe Newell told journalists at the firm's recent Hardware Day that in terms of application performance, Valve does not expect to see any differences.
Whether a quad-core processor upgrade makes sense or not, depends on your expectations from your computer system and your budget. If multimedia processing is what your PC needs to do every day, the upgrade is a no-brainer. Gamers are likely to be the first ones to buy QX6700 systems, but realistically, if you fall into this group, skip the upgrade for now. The money may be better invested in an overclocked dual-core system and a second graphics card. Dual-core processors are here to stay and won't be replaced with quad-cores anytime soon.
Of course, if money is no object, a quad-core upgrade doesn't hurt either.
Intel unleashes quad-core processors
Dell first to officially roll out quad-core system
Tom's Hardware benchmarks Intel's first quad-core "Kentsfield"
Intel's quad-core rings in a new era of enthusiast systems
Dell's first quad-core systems indicate hefty premium for Kentsfield CPU
Intel quad-core QX6700 makes official debut in price/performance charts
Intel Roadmap update 11/2007: Core 2 Duo to hit 3 GHz, introduce FSB1333 in Q3 '07