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Tuesday 30 October 2007

Quad Core, do we need it? [Lurks]

There's an increasing industry momentum behind quad core processors. Which is what you'd expect since Intel wants to drive up the average price of the processor they ship in PCs and PC manufacturers are happy to have some new feature which drives up average selling prices and margins too. The situation is such that I've recently read reviews of things like gaming PCs where the authors have complained that the PC doesn't have a quad core processor. Despite the fact that in reality, for games, a dual core processor is cheaper and faster because generally you get a higher clocked unit for less money.

The popular 'wisdom', if you can call it that, is that game developers will come to grips with multi-core processing and there's all these games around the corner. However this has been said for quite some time now, remember dual-core processors have been on the market for an absolute age now. Even the supposedly multi-core and extremely CPU intensive Supreme Commanded ended up being a pigs ear. They made the game highly threaded but then didn't balance the threads across processors.

Most games, eg outside of the RTS genre, simply don't have a lot of things going on which lend themselves to offloading to another thread. Physics is one of the biggest ones, which is one of the reasons add-in physics cards are stupid. PCs have spare CPUs doing nothing in them as it is. Now the Crysis demo is out and they couldn't even be bothered to make that use anything other than a single core.

There's a solid case for a dual core processor. For a start the second processor is on the actual die. With absolutely no game support at all, generally your game runs on one core and Windows balances its own internal OS threads out onto the other core. Video encoding too, this works brilliantly on dual core. And of course most people end up only doing one CPU computationally intensive thing at once. That loads up one core, leaving the other for making your desktop and other apps responsive.

Current Intel quad core processors are actually two dual core processors in the same package and the power consumption ends up shooting up to around about the last generation of processors anyway. I think it's quite nice to have a fairly cool and quiet PC and that's a solid benefit of Intel's dual core stuff.

The news today is the launch of the new ridiculous extreme edition 'Penryn' quad core QX9650. This is a cool chip, don't get me wrong. It's got some nice enhancements and fabricated with 45nm, it's cooler, has more space for loads of cache and sports a new SSE4 which is something which absolutely can be used in games (in video drivers particularly). It's burning up benchmarks. Yet what's inside is basically two 'wolfdale' CPUs. It's that which is what we really need but of course if Intel are going to wrangle PR out of launching the new architecture it's going to be on-message with quad core stuff.

On the power side people have pointed out that the QX9650 used about the same power under load as the previous generation, the E6750 in particular. I'd rather take a processor that's able to offer more performance and use half the power, rather than adding another two largely underutilised cores. And I'd rather not pay for them too, given this part will likely cost in the region of £600 upwards. While the E6750 costs a meagre £117 and can be overclocked, easily, to outperform the QX9650 comfortably in games.

The thing is, the industry momentum continues. People benchmark this processor in countless reviews and they largely go for benchmarks, or at least feature heavily, those which show a clear benefit of quad core processors. Yet that's nothing at all to do with what you will be doing with your actual real world PC.

Why can't we put a stop to this. Enough is enough. Quad core when the software has caught up to even dual core. Give us 45nm dual core processors now, that don't cost £600, that use less power than the chips we're using now. It's high time that the whole industry of enthusiast hardware editorial journalists stopped trying to sell up the latest and greatest and actually got back to what matters to people who actually use computers.


  1. When I was spec'ing my new rig 'P30N', I looked at the Quad Core procs, and shied away quite rapidly.

    I can't imagine any reason for paying that huge premium until the apps you use day to day make full use of it.


  2. The only thing I've seen that makes quad cores look good for games is some special demo Anandtech had from Valve.

    The other thing that will slow quad core usefulness is writing multi threaded apps is just plain hard, especially to test & diagnose problems. I've done it & it's a lot more effort, orders of magnitude more so. Small thread synchronization errors can introduce inconsistently reproduceable bugs that are hard to track down. Put in too much locking to play it safe & you force your threads to wait for each other too much, making your app single threaded in a piecemeal way.

    I'd imagine the big engine boys are putting a lot of effort into this & it will consolidate their positions further. There's no way that people are going to come along with custom game engines that will be remotely competetive with the next gen stuff that will go into unreal engine 4 or whatever Carmack comes up with.

    Game engines should lend themselves niceley to multi threading: renderer, physics, net code, ai. But all this stuff needs to be synchronised. We'll get there & it'll be impressive, but not for a couple of years yet I reckon.


  3. And if we assume that the Unreal Tournament 3 engine is going to have one of the best handles on this issue for the forthcoming 18-24 months, early testing by Anandtech showed that while there is a massive jump from a single to a dual core of about 60%, the relative improvement of dual to quad core was between just 9% and 20% averaging 13% improvement at 2.66ghz. .

    So although multi-threading is here to stay across PC, 360 and PS3, considering all these games are going to be invariably GPU not CPU bound, the massive extra cost and consumption of the quad core and its titchy performance advantage, there is nothing to counter the strong feeling expressed here that the emporer's new clothes are currently swathed around cores 3 and 4 for the time being.

    And to me, two of the most interesting questions that raises are; if intel is pushing quad core as much as is possible but it is going to get shown up in these benchmarking tests, this is a pretty dicey strategy for them to take. The more they pimp it the more they stand to get shot down.

    But more importantly, if we work on the theory that intel's pricing structure across its range basically works on the basis of 'discount down from the most expensive model', the existence of quad and dual core processors in the same product line might argue for good pricing for us for duals. At the top will be the fastest quad core at the usual ludicrous price of 999 bucks or so, then followed by 3 or 4 more quad core models after which only the fastest core2 duo can start to be priced and so on down the ladder. So today in Blighty Dabs will do you a QX6850 @ 3ghz quad core for £595 or a E6850 @ 3ghz dual core for £165. Lets look at that again *one* hundred and sixty five quid for the top dual core processor at 3ghz. Madness. If those quad cores had been held back as technology to be deployed at a later date then those core 2's would be a *lot* more at the moment, like several hundred pounds more at the top end.

    So as far as quad core goes, god bless them for their functional irrelevance to us gamers right now and more power to their elbow for putting a tight lid on core 2 prices....


  4. .... and of course regardless of all those cores, your PC gets tied up around the hard disk access anyway (well that's what happens every time I'm multi-tasking on the PC)


  5. The attraction of quad core CPUs really only came about after Intel's price cut last July. You can buy the Q6600 for around £160 and it'll overclock to 3.3-3.4Ghz on air, on average (YMMV of course). Whereas the E6850 costs about the same and tends to only hit 3.6Ghz on air, on average. Most people when choosing between them, went for the extra cores, assuming that should any game come along to take advantage of them, it would pound the dual cores into the ground (in benchmarking terms at least).

    Judging from the Crysis demo though, we're GPU limited and with ATI/AMD not giving Nvidia much competition in the performance stakes, they're in no rush to push out the next generation at the high end :(


  6. Of course for those of us staying with dual core for a while (I don't envisage changing my cpu in the next 18-24 months) then it's a socket compatible easy upgrade to quad core. My board (DS4) even supports the new Penryn stuff. Hopefully the extra cores may be of use then.


  7. Indeed and it's awhile before dual core Penryn shows up too.


  8. Regarding Duncan's comment above. That's of course right about rhe cheaper Q6600. I find the current reality is you're considering an E6750 (which costs £115) and a Q6600 (which costs £164). You're talking about a processor which is still slower in games, costs more money and uses a bucket load more power too. So I don't think it's significantly changed. Myself, I'd just get annoyed with three bars doing very little on my G15 keyboard rather than one :)


  9. Sad state of affairs with only Supreme Commander and Lost Planet showing a noticeable improvement with quad core CPUs (UT3 is a possibility too). I wonder if Crytek are waiting for Intel to put some dollars their way for a multi-core and SSE4 performance patch? To sell the Penryns next year.