Quad-core processors are on their way but the current new offerings are better than ever. Is now a good time to play the waiting game? The answer is a resounding no.
That's right. It's time to clear the air: most people will not even slightly benefit from the quad-core monstrosity when it becomes available.
For those of you looking at upgrading, you may have yourself in a knot deciding when and what to purchase. There are now extremely fast and viciously-priced dual-core processors on the market -- this is, ordinarily, a damn good thing. However, you seemingly can't ignore the quad-core CPUs on the horizon coming from both AMD and Intel. Surely these upcoming beasts will make roadkill of the existing line?
My unconcealed answer is no. There's an elephant disguised as a lampshade in this room and it stinks.
Dual-core is the new architectural design feature that is simply becoming a standard in most if not all new desktop CPUs -- and now a lot of mobile chips. Both AMD and Intel are pushing it with gusto. This is absolutely not the case, however, for the quad-core processor. At least not in the near future.
These processors with four cores do, indeed, contain much potential computing power, but what is of importance here is the kind of processing power that is available. Additional cores are only useful in certain environments and your desktop computer is unlikely to make proper use of four cores.
In terms of environments, the full benefits from multi-core CPUs are gained when the software is coded to be multi-threaded. This essentially allows software to divide its processes among the available cores, thereby dramatically increasing a program's running speed. It's a brilliant concept and one that works really effectively, if such software is available.
Where is this software readily available, you ask? Servers. Most server operating systems and the software they run can take advantage of multiple cores -- or even CPUs -- as they are generally written with such environments in mind. This is, however, extremely uncommon ground with software on the desktop, as multiple cores in this area is still a new and -- up until now -- niche concept. There is but a handful of applications and games that support multiple cores.
So why, then, would anyone want a desktop processor with multiple cores? Why, inner monologue, I'm glad you asked. There is one real-world advantage for them on the desktop; multi-cored processors are brilliant for multi-tasking. This is because the software itself might not support multiple cores, however your operating system most likely does; whether that be Windows XP (Pro only), Vista, Windows 2003, most Linux distros, and even Mac OS X.
Allow me to start with the current line up of desktop dual-core CPU families -- Intel's Core 2 Duo and AMD's Athlon 64 X2. You can run two process-intensive programs at once, that which you might not ordinarily try, such as play an intensive game while encoding a high resolution video. Generally speaking, neither hefty process will ever inhibit the other. Realistically, you can't do this with a single-cored desktop CPU without one or the other application slowing to a halt. Additionally, when using several standard applications and switching between them, the jump from single to dual core is definitely noticeable.
If the processor is intended for a desktop computer -- gaming or otherwise -- two cores are currently the perfect count. How about four? This is when they become superfluous for most purposes, as a jump from dual to quad on the desktop is minimal at best.
In order to notice a performance increase on a quad-core system -- without multi-threaded software support -- you would have to be running four process-intensive applications at the same time. Even then, you could be hard-pressed to notice a difference, due to programs not requiring an entire CPU or core to itself at all times. Unless I'm grossly mistaken and you regularly do, in fact, run a busy database, burn DVDs, play a game and encode video -- all at once -- this is a fairly rare occurrence on your desktop computer.
Let's consider the slough of competitive activity currently waging in the CPU market -- one being the heavily slashed prices on the previous generation of performance CPUs. Additionally, and more notably, Intel's new Core 2 Duo range, the most powerful collection of processors to grace the desktop market, are now available and closely competing with said previous generation at the price level.
For me, that's slightly difficult to overlook, particularly when the Core 2 Duo devours yesterday's tour de force for breakfast. A major leap in performance like this shouldn't be ignored for what's on the horizon. On the other hand, sure, AMD no longer wields the performance crown, but its processors are damn cheap -- and they aren't exactly slow.
Of course, though reasonably informed, I haven't yet played with one of these quad-cored CPUs myself to reach a final and definitive conclusion, but why, then, should you worry about a CPU you can't touch when there is already awesomeness afoot. Right now you can buy a damn fast CPU and you won't need to sell vital organs. Very rarely is the competition as fierce as it currently is.
Don't get me wrong -- a processor with four cores is cool and all, but it is utterly unnecessary and effectively useless for the time being. The quad-core CPU is not unlike Apple's Macintosh computer; it's a niche product and is targetted at a small minority. If you aren't a money-brandishing enthusiast, you probably don't want one. A quad-core CPU, that is.
Quad-core and above will eventually become useful, but not before the majority of the software you run is programmed for it. This will take some time.
So quit worrying about next year and jump on the dual-core bandwagon. Yesteryear's dreamy future is now on the shelves -- and it's hot.