The Crystal Ball on CPUs

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Talking about the future of CPUs is like watching the long-term weather forecast on the evening news. It's nice to think that next Saturday will be sunny and warm, but everyone--including the meteorologist--knows it's just a guess. While Intel and AMD may talk about what they plan to offer in the future, a manufacturing glitch or changing market conditions can wreak havoc with the plan.

That said, let's take a peek at what may be next.

Intel says that by the end of 2006, more than 70 percent of all its desktop and mobile CPU sales will consist of dual-core chips. That's right: People who are paid to research this kind of thing expect seven out of ten Intel chips sold to have two cores. And vendors aren't likely to spend all that money and do nothing with the chips, so it's safe to assume seven out of ten Intel-based PCs they make will also have two cores. So you can see how your choices may be changing quickly. Heck, even the budget-minded Celeron family will gain a dual-core sibling later in 2005.

AMD has similar ideas. Teresa de Onis, product marketing manager for AMD's desktop brand, says, "I think dual core will rapidly waterfall down into the mainstream, probably by 2007."

Across the board, buyers can expect more powerful CPUs to emerge as both Intel and AMD make the transition to a 65-nanometer manufacturing process. Nanometers basically describe the average size of features on a chip. Today's dual- and single-core CPUs are built using a 90-nanometer process, which requires more power (and produces more heat) than the upcoming approach.

Intel expects to roll out 65-nanometer versions of its Pentium D and Pentium Extreme Edition in the first half of 2006, while the mobile-tuned Pentium M family will receive a process shrink early in 2006. In the second half of 2006, a next-generation 65-nanometer Pentium core should boost performance further, but Intel is not providing details.

Says Intel Product Marketing Manager Jeff Austin: "We'll ramp 65-nanometer very heavily across each of our product lines in the course of next year."

For its part, AMD expects to announce a 65-nanometer rollout schedule by early summer. "You are going to see our Athlon 64 FX continue to scale," says Foster. "The implication of that is there will be something after the FX-55."

So what's next? Chris Connolly, Web operations manager for PC maker Game PC, believes processing technology will keep getting smaller. "The next big step after 65 nanometers will likely be 45 nanometers, but both companies are smart enough not to make any promises more than a year or two ahead."

In fact, Paul Otellini, Intel's chief executive officer, told a crowd at the FOSE government IT show in Washington, D.C., this month that the company had a road map that would take it to 15 nanometers. That means more features, less heat, and less space consumed. In short, something to look forward to.

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