Quad-Core Lust and Vista: Getting Ready For Megatasking

With the entry of AMD’s Quad FX processors into the market and Intel clearly pushing the future of quad-core, let’s talk about why you might want one.

It wasn’t too long ago that we were chasing the almighty MHz and the faster the processor the more we thought we could do. Of course for those of us a bit more experienced, we’ve known that for some time PCs have been bottlenecked with slow memory, slow drives and often with low performing integrated graphics solutions.  

Over time, memory speed has improved a lot, hard drive performance has been assisted by ever larger and more efficient caches and higher spindle speeds, and good graphics have become cheaper. This has started to shift the bottleneck back to the processor which was, as it increased in speed, starting to generate an impressive amount of heat, and it started to become clear that if something wasn’t done, many of us would have little micro-suns in our offices and homes. While in places like Alaska that might actually be a benefit, for the rest of us this was clearly becoming a huge problem. 
I can personally recall my first Intel Extreme Edition and that it not only was incredibly noisy, it made my office intolerably hot. 

Shifting to Multi-Core

This led to a shift from MHz or a focus on chip speed, to a focus on increasing the number of processors actually doing the work. This is like shifting from building engines with one ever larger piston to V8s, V12s and V16s. But unlike engines, which can still only really do one thing at a time, each individual processor can perform similar to an independent, stand alone, engine. It’s kind of interesting to imagine what a car would be like if, instead of one big engine, it had a number of smaller engines each focused on doing some portion of work like air-conditioning, entertainment, and lighting. The occasional car that has electric motors for power steering kind of showcase this, when you turn the wheel on a regular power steering unit you can feel and hear the engine take the load; with electric power steering there is no apparent impact on the engine.

For PCs having each processor focused on doing separate things is certainly possible but Windows XP really wasn’t designed to do this. It did anticipate multi-core processing because Windows NT, which was its real predecessor (Windows XP was the maintenance release for Windows 2000 which, in turn, followed Windows NT). Moving beyond 2 processors though, particularly on the desktop, was just not something we were anticipating on the desktop in the 90s when the code base for NT/2000/XP was created. 

Windows Vista, which has new core architecture, did anticipate this shift and load balancing between the cores in a quad core Vista machine, according to the OEMs and chip vendors, is impressively good. While we can’t confirm this, and clearly none of the OEMs or chip vendors are (or are allowed) to talk about Leopard, we believe that it too anticipates the move to quad core because of the close proximity between Intel and Apple these days. While it will be fun to compare Vista to Leopard, it is unlikely the early audience for either is likely even to consider the alternative platform and simply be thrilled with the performance benefits they will see with the new systems and hardware. 
Why you’ll Want Quad

For many of us Megatasking is old news, we’ve been doing it for some time; we just didn’t have the “word” that categorized out activities. Gamers who play two characters at once, folks that game and do email, who watch video and do email, who run virus checkers and disk defragmenters in the background while doing several other things, and those who transcode music and video for their portable player while doing these other things are, actually moving beyond Multitasking to Megatasking.  

With a quad core system, and I have one of the AMD Quadzilla boxes (eat your hearts out), the number of tasks that you are concurrently doing, particularly if you are using Vista (which I’m using right now as my primary platform) isn’t as important as it once was. You can launch a background application and continue to work with little or no impact on what you are doing. Most of the annoying little problems many of us who work our systems hard like slow text (you write a line and then wait for the screen to catch up), email that seems to queue up and wait for some magic command before it goes out and frees up the system so you can do something else, and frame rates in games or while watching a video that suddenly drop because the AV application has started a scan. 

Now I am saying most, because I’m still seeing network bottlenecks, hard drive bottlenecks and, when using single, older, videocards, video bottlenecks. Of all of these it is the network stuff that is annoying me personally right now (AT&T DSL isn’t exactly fast). But if you have a fast network, (Verizon’s new FiOS optical network is blindingly fast I understand) you’ll see a huge jump in practical performance. 

Of course, for those of us who are online gamers this thing is a god send. You can run two characters simultaneously, you can watch a video or movie (during the slow times) and you can still IM or do email (or even draft a column like this one) all at the same time.  

Of course the most disappointing part of this is you can’t yet get a quad core laptop, which is clearly a shame, but for those of us who are still living off desktops, quad is cool and we should be very happy it is finally here. Now excuse me, some City of Villains dude is pounding on my head, so it’s time to demonstrate the power of quad. 

Hey there my level 36 buddy, let me introduce you to my little level 50 friend…

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