Intel launched their dual-core mainstream chips this week, and I was in attendance at their press gig in London on Thursday.
Intel gigs are always guaranteed to be something a little different from the ordinary. Let's take an example of the ordinary: an ATI briefing the following day consisted of a buffet lunch and a presentation / Q&A with technical engineers which lasted a couple of hours, at a convenient London hotel - in this case, the Hilton.
In contrast, Intel hired out an Odeon cinema in the heart of London, Leicester Square. Drinks and canapés were laid on, a full waiter-service lunch provided and a lengthy cinema-sized presentation followed involving heavily-scripted product demonstrations designed to impress the throng of IT press in attendance. Intel does like to flash the cash.
Tellingly, there was no scheduled free-for-all Q&A at the Intel session. The tight control that Intel likes to keep on proceedings means that questions are restricted to one-on-ones with PR people over coffee after the main event, perhaps in case anyone comes up with a killer question and Intel reps are publicly embarrassed. Having posed such a question at the last IDF I attended, I did nothing but add to the general fear that most American PR people feel at facing British journalists, a trend started by my close friend and Editor of The Inquirer, Mike Magee.
So it was with a healthy scepticism that I sat down to hear what Intel had to tell me about the new Pentium D chip and 945X chipset. Here are the facts: the new Pentium D officially drops the Pentium 4 moniker. 'D' doesn't, apparently, stand for desktop, but it might stand for dual-core, which the chips are. The initial models come in at 2.8, 3.0 and 3.2GHz.
"... Perhaps more important than the raw performance is the shift in the usage dynamics..."
Let's expand from those facts: the chips will, at least initially, suck for high-end gaming. With chips at 3.8GHz from Intel, and the FX-55 from AMD being the definitive Doom 3 workhorse, the comparatively low clock speeds that these dual-core chips enter in at are not going to challenge the cutting edge.
The game that Intel showed off at the presentation was a flight sim that had been threaded, with some AI functions being performed on the second core. There was no concrete comparison of single-core v dual- core in the game, but we've done enough dual-core testing to know that dual-core will not be a factor worth considering for dedicated gaming for at least another 6 months. Crucially, Unreal Engine 3 will be threaded for dual-core, so we will begin to see next-gen performance from thereon out.
However, right now, what Intel offers with dual-core is a mainstream chip that does perform faster in a number of situations. They demonstrated some operations in Media Center that did perform a heck of a lot faster, such as media transcoding for transfer to a portable media player, which saw a 20% increase in speed. We know that dual- core will substantially increase multi-tasking performance, so that running virus scanning and protection has less of a performance impact.
However, perhaps more important than the raw performance is the shift in the usage dynamics that suggests how Intel is going to try to get more users to switch on their PCs and use their platform. Over the past few years, we've seen them try to convince us that MHz = raw performance, then when they began to add features rather than clock speed, they told us that features = performance. Effectively what Intel is now saying is that usage is the new performance.
43% of people in Britain still don't have a computer, and part of the challenge of the coming decade, as Intel sees it, is how to get those people to use computers. It's crucial for the economy, it's crucial for Britain's continued performance in the world market and, fundamentally, it's crucial for Intel's bottom line. What Intel has realised is that extra performance does not matter to these people.
Computers have already reached the point at which they are fast enough to do what they want to do - photos, web, office, video, music. What they lack is the ease of use that will attract this new market. Dual-core is just part of the wider approach to bringing new usability to the PC. People expect to be able to do things simultaneously and sequentially without a hiccup. If a virus programme schedules a scan, they expect that the scan won't interfere with their other work, because, logically, it shouldn't. Likewise, they shouldn't be left without their life in the event of a hardware failure. Surely, they reason, computers shouldn't be so fragile?
"... 43% of people in Britain still don't have a computer..."
Intel is attempting to rectify some of these problems with 945X, although even they will admit it is only a first step. Intel's new Matrix RAID tech allows for a drive failure in the system without Windows falling over. They demonstrated one drive in a RAID array being unplugged from the system, with no blip in Windows - the other drives were able to compensate because of the mirroring. Whilst mirroring is nothing new, usability and stability at this level is. Whilst your average consumer will not care about RAID at a base level, they will care that their computer will require servicing less often.
The firm has already started to tackle usability problems in other areas. The Azalia audio platform specifies jack re-tasking, so that users can plug their speakers into the myriad of audio ports at the back of the machine and the system can reconfigure them as needed.
These kinds of steps forward are not going to set enthusiasts alight, but they are important for bridging the so-called 'Digital Divide' and getting more people on board with technology. There are always going to be advances at the high-end - especially with console manufacturers pushing gaming towards high-end graphical effects and threaded processing. But I think we're going to see a greater proportion of Intel's time in the near future being spent wooing the mainstream customer that has so far resisted technology. When it's easy and robust enough for Grandma to use, then it will start to become truly ubiquitous.
Intel wheeled out a Microsoft representative to talk about how popular Media Center had become. Having spent a month with the system, I can see why. What Media Center offers, which Microsoft has never done before, is a consistent and logical user interface. Crucial to the success of the OS is the Media Center button that sits in the centre of the remote control. Pressing the button takes you back home, no matter where you are or what you're doing. No ifs, no buts, no questions, it takes you to a screen you know. For mainstream use, that kind of consistency and simplicity - effectively, it's and 'I'm lost' get-out - is absolutely critical. It's telling that Microsoft have implemented a similar feature in the new Xbox 360 controller, with the 360 button taking you to the UI wherever you are.
So, Intel impressed me with their strategy for bringing usability to the mainstream, even if the hardware isn't quite so relevant to us as enthusiast gamers. It does affect, however, power users, to some degree. If you're the kind of person that enjoys doing a bunch of things at once on your PC, then dual-core will definitely be of benefit. Video encoding and simultaneous playback will be faster. Drive defrags and simultaneous system usage will be faster. However, whether or not you get enough benefit to warrant the drop in gaming performance is a matter for your individual preference. You can be sure that we'll be doing some further performance analysis on dual- core chips in the very near future and letting you know more of our thoughts.