January 25, 2008
Hot New Trend Allows Computers to Get Faster
PCs will continue to get faster, in accordance with Moore's Law, but it won't be like the old days when vendors brought out successive generations of microprocessor chips that ran at faster and faster speeds, to the delight of the users.
"They've hit the wall because of heat," Tom Halfhill, senior analyst for the Microprocessor Report newsletter in San Jose, Calif., told LiveScience.Currently, chip speeds have topped out at a little under 4 gigahertz (4 billion cycles per second) because they get hotter as they run faster, and at higher speeds they fry themselves.
The industry's answer: adding more "cores" (i.e. copies of the processor circuitry itself) that run at today's speeds. Vendors are offering two, three and four processors per chip, while eight-core versions are expected.
The cores run in parallel, Halfhill explained, and the machine's operating system (often modified Windows or Linux) knows how to divide up its tasks between the cores, to enhance overall performance, and, of course, keep up with Moore's Law.
Formulated decades ago by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, Moore's Law states that the power of computer chips — and therefore computers — can be expected to double every other year.
The problem, Halfhill added, is that typical end-user applications, such as word processors, spreadsheets or browsers have no facilities for using multiple cores.
"Most application programs were written to run on one processor, and adding parallelism is not trivial," Halfhill noted. "It is happening slowly, but not all desktop programs can run in parallel — and if you are just typing with a word processor, what difference does the extra speed make?"
Beyond multiplying, the cores are also eventually expected to specialize, and even let PCs reconfigure themselves on the fly, predicts analyst Rob Enderle, head of the Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif. If the user is running a video game, some of the cores would convert themselves into graphics processors to handle the workload. If the PC is handling computation-heavy jobs like encryption, they would convert into plain-vanilla processors.
Antivirus software could move into one core, wall itself off from infection and from there monitor the rest of the system, he added.
"All in all, we should be able to look forward to more intelligence in our applications, especially from the parts that operate in the background, such as spell-checkers or virus-checkers," Enderle said. "The more intelligence you can build in, the more likely it is to do something amazing."
But software will take serious rewriting if the chips are to have more than eight cores, said Halfhill, or many of the cores are likely to remain idle.
However, processor chips with multiple, fully employed cores have become the norm in other fields, he added. Chips that handle Internet traffic, cell phone tower traffic and cryptography typically have scores if not hundreds of cores, he noted, adding that each core is typically less complex than a PC processor.