Chip Wars: Getting Back to Normal


It's starting to look like the good old days again for the CPU industry. AMD's recent launch of the Shanghai device and Intel's counter with the Nehalem processor are certainly reminiscent of the early PC era, when tit-for-tat advances kept things lively.


Nowadays, though, the chip universe is multipolar, with servers, mobile devices and appliances running a plethora of real and virtual applications, all the while trying to keep the lid on the ever-growing electric bill.


But as Brian Corn of Source Code points out in this ChannelWeb article, at least these latest chips share enough of the same characteristics to allow a better apples-to-apples comparison than devices of the recent past. With both chips built on the 45 nm process, things like speed, power consumption and even cost are more easily matched up. The expectation is that Intel will push the high-performance edge, but AMD will seek to grab market share with better price points and advanced virtualization features.


If speed is your game, you won't do much better than the Nehalem, officially known as the Core i7, according to this review by PC Mag's Michael Miller. While it's important to note that speeds can vary according to the application, the i7 has so far outperformed even the souped-up Phenom X4 on just about all benchmarks.


Still, there is a lot to like on the Shanghai, said Christoph Hochstatter on ZDNet Germany. For one, the device supports DDR2 RAM at up to 800 MHz, compared to the Barcelona chip's 667 MHz. And by the middle of next year, the line is expected to support DDR3 and HyperTransport 3.0, which bumps transfer speeds up from today's 8 GBps to a blistering 17 GBps.


All of this is happening in what is likely to be a tough year for both server and PC processors. Analysts predict sales will flatline in the coming year or decline slightly, with longer-term prospects looking equally glum depending on how long the expected recession lasts. Even then, it could be a while before market conditions approach anything near those of the past two decades, particularly if both server and desktop virtualization take hold.


That's not likely to end the gamesmanship in the silicon industry, however. In fact, demand for bleeding-edge processing will likely remain strong as enterprises look to centralize resources onto fewer, but extremely powerful, hardware platforms. If that turns out to be the case, then the advantage will almost certainly go to Intel.