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Punters dubious of quad-core chip benefits

Multi-core conundrum: is there any benefit for typical PC users?
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PC buyers aren't falling for the multi-core marketing spiel used to flog quad-core systems. So says a recent report citing several IT analysts in the US.

According to the report, Intel and AMD are concentrating on delivering quad-core PC processors to desktops. But they're expensive and deliver little by way of real-world performance benefits to typical users.

Davood Sedaghatfar, an IT management consultant in the US, reckons: "multi-core technology is way over-rated for public use. I think the manufacturers use these terms and technotalk to make people think they are getting the whiz-bang stuff. But in reality, I do not think the public uses even 2 per cent of the power and functionality."

Despite these doubts, more and more system builders are offering quad-core equipped PCs, typically backed by promises of multi-tasking prowess and gaming grunt. Industry analysts estimate that 85 per cent of performance PCs and 25 per cent of mainstream rigs will be quad-core equipped by 2009.

Quad-core conundrum

So, are PC buyers right to doubt the value of expensive quad-core machines?

There's no doubting that the overall PC software environment has yet to catch up with the reality of widespread multi-core hardware. Many applications are not capable of leveraging the full performance of a dual-core chip like Intel's Core 2 Duo , much less a quad-core one.

Likewise, for low demand PC users who do little more than browse the web and compose simple word processor and spreadsheet documents, any multi-core CPU is clearly overkill.

The real question, therefore, is this: does quad-core offers tangible benefits to demanding users in the market for a performance PC?

For certain niche applications that fully support quad-core processors, including video encoding, the performance boost can be enormous.

Moreover, the more power-hungry an application is, the more likely it is to offer quad-core friendly multi-threading. Already, many professional-grade content creation applications, such as Photoshop, are capable of generating more than two CPU-intensive threads.

That said, there is one glaring omission from the multi-threading portfolio - gaming. Properly multi-threaded PC games remain few and far between.

However, the rise of multi-core games consoles like the Xbox 360 (opens in new tab) is already forcing game developers to get their collective noggins around the problem of multi-threading. Indeed, most major titles pencilled in for release later this year will support multi-core.

Multi-tasking matters

The other major benefit of quad-core computing is multi-tasking. With a powerful quad-core processor, it's almost impossible to run out of CPU resources and suffer from slow downs.

A classic example is a hung internet browser application. This can often chew up 100 per cent of the resources on a single core processor. With dual-core, you'll probably get by in most scenarios. But not if you are decoding an HD video stream that requires the full resources of a dual-core CPU on its own. The consequence will be dropped frames and stuttering video.

It's a similar scenario with gaming. Try running a full anti-virus scan, streaming HD video to a remote device and running a demanding 3D game locally with anything less than a quad-core chip. PC owners expect to be able to do several things at once on their PCs.

Here at Tech.co.uk, we therefore think the benefit of quad-core is a pretty straight forward question of system responsiveness and the overall end user experience. The more you ask of your PC, the more you will appreciate the almost invincible feel of a quad-core chip.

That's particularly true if you are using the resource hog that is Windows Vista (opens in new tab) - an operating system that is well capable of bringing a dual-core CPU to its knees. And the fact that a quad-core chip delivers a rare slice of future proofing on a platform that is notorious for rapid redundancy certainly adds a little gravy.

Here's hoping, therefore, that the launch of AMD's upcoming quad-core competitor will push prices down and bring the price/performance balance into the mainstream.

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