Intel's 45nm Penryn desktop expected to pack a big wallop

Chip maker beats AMD to the 45nm punch, delivering family of Penryn processors

Intel's new 45-nanometer chip for the desktop, part of the newly released Penryn family, should give gamers, researchers and serious multitaskers a significant performance boost, according to analysts.

And that is not good news for rival Advanced Micro Devices, which recently started shipping its quad-core Barcelona processor -- built using a 65nm manufacturing process. AMD isn't expected to move to 45nm technology until the second half of 2008.

The release of Intel's Core 2 Extreme quad-core processor came as part of a larger release of Penryn processors, including 15 server dual-core and quad-core 45nm Hi-k Intel Xeon processors. To make the move from 65nm to 45nm processors, Intel designed a new transistor, stemming leakage and improving energy efficiency. With 820 million of these newly designed transistors in just one chip, Intel is calling it one of its biggest advancements.

On the desktop side, all of this should add up to a major performance boost.

Dean Freeman, an analyst at Gartner, said he expects Penryn will be 20% to 50% faster than Intel's previous chip releases in general purpose applications and 10% to 40% faster in technical applications, multimedia and games. For example, someone using Microsoft Excel or PowerPoint should see a 20% to 50% boost, while an Adobe Photoshop user should see a 10% to 40% increase.

"It's going to mean a faster desktop. It's a more powerful tool, operating applications faster," said Freeman. "Basically, it means that for those of us who are concerned about the speed at which applications work on our desktop, the good news is that it will work faster."

Boyd Davis, a general manager at Intel, said a larger L2 cache and support for new SSE4 media instructions are part of the chip's performance boost.

And while no one will be expectantly lining up around the block for the new chips, Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT, said that Penryn is a "step up" from previous Intel designs and should appeal to the high-end gamers and workstation customers.

"The Penryn architecture blends notably high performance with significant steps forward in power efficiency," he added. "It's a bit like a new sports car that hits a higher top speed than previous models, while simultaneously delivering better gas mileage."

Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, said the Penryn desktop won't just appeal to the gaming community. Power users with more than 10 applications open at once, video editors and researchers are going to be eager for a performance boost.

Olds added that with this "big step forward" for desktop performance, he's not sure what AMD has to respond with.

"AMD has their work cut out for them," he said. "[Penryn] will be hands-down the fastest desktop chips in existence ... And it's not just this generation. Intel will just crank this thing faster and faster, and it will be a challenge for AMD to respond."

Intel last month opened a new US$3 billion manufacturing facility in Arizona, kicking off mass production of its new 45nm microprocessors. Freeman has previously noted that the opening of the new Arizona facility, named Fab 32, is expected to boost production of 45nm wafers from 5,000 a month in the pilot program at an Oregon facility to 25,000 to 30,000 wafers a month. Davis added that two other new 45nm fabrication sites -- one in Israel and one in New Mexico -- are expected to go online, boosting 45nm production over Intel's 65nm production by the second half of 2008.

Today, Intel is coming out with one Core 2 Extreme processor, which is geared to the high-end gaming and research market. The company is slated to unveil Core 2 Quad processors and Core 2 Duo processors in the first quarter of 2008, pushing the new chips from the high-end desktop market out to the general market.

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