In our first article, we explained that dynamic power, power leakage, the memory wall and wire delay have forced CPU designers to rethink the methods that they use to achieve higher performance CPUs.

In Part 2, we will investigate the advantages and disadvantages of the new market trend: multi-core CPUs. Will dual core enhance your gaming experience? Tim Sweeney, the leading developer behind the Unreal 3 engine, was so kind to answer our questions about multi-threaded development with concise answers. There is more - in the third part of this series, we will investigate what future multi-core and single core architectures will bring. We examine if the stories about "the new era of multi-threaded multi-core CPUs" are true and whether or not this will really benefit the consumer.

Should you care?

Should you care whether or not we are moving to multi-core and multi-threaded CPUs? After all, the past decades, we were able to get consistently more performance for lower prices. However, it is pretty unclear whether or not multi-cores will benefit all consumers. We will explain this statement in more detail, but it is very interesting to see whether or not it will benefit you. The last spring IDF was all about multi-core CPUs, but there was very little information on how this is going to benefit the consumers. Let us take a critical look at this new direction that the desktop CPUs have taken.

Multi-core, multi-expensive?

Dual cores are expensive to manufacture. Yields (the number of working chips on one wafer) are roughly proportional to size. Larger, dual core chips will always have lower yields than smaller, single core chips on the same process technology. But that is only a small problem. A bigger and more obvious problem is that you have only half the number per wafer (even slightly less). So, dual cores (such as Pressler) cost at least twice as much to manufacture compared to a single core chip - most likely more (such as Yonah, Pentium-D). Dual and multi-cores might not increase the thermal density (dissipated power per mm²), but they do increase the total power. Granted, from the viewpoint of a heat sink designer, it is not much harder to cool a 112 mm² Prescott chip that dissipates +/- 90 Watt than a theoretical 206 mm² Pentium-D with 180 Watt. However, making sure that those 180 Watts do not cook all the components inside your computer is almost an impossible task for the system designer who wants to design a relatively silent PC. The result is that multi-core CPUs will run at lower clockspeeds than their single core counterparts. The Pentium-D, the dual core Prescott, is limited to 130 Watt and 3.2 GHz, while the current Prescott dissipates up to 115 Watt and runs at 3.8 GHz. And last, but not least, dual core CPUs need more bandwidth than a single core to make a difference and increase the "CPU perceived" latency. Cache coherency and getting access to the same memory bus all increase the total latency that the CPU sees and thus, lowers performance.

Multi-core, multi-performance?

The advantages of multi-core and multi-threaded CPUs far outweigh the disadvantages in the server market. While most server applications produce a lot of threads and processes, performance scales close to linear as more cores are added to the die. This is in sharp contrast with the superscalar CPU where increasingly complex designs require exponentionally more transistors, and power show diminishing returns, especially in server applications where the IPC can go below 1. While Dual core CPUs are more expensive to manufacture, they are far easier to design than turning a single core CPU into an even wider issue, complex CPU. Development costs for a new CPU design are astronomically high. So, it does not surprise us at all that Server CPU manufacturers have turned en masse towards multi-core CPU designs: significant power gains with a fraction of the time and money invested. And the same can be said about a big part of the HPC market.

A good example of how well server applications can scale with more CPUs, refer to our DB2 tests, which showed up to a 96% performance increase going from single to dual, and a boost of up to 89% when we increased the number of Opterons from two to four. Most desktop and many workstation applications are single-threaded, however. Or more accurately, they might be multithreaded to be more responsive, but there is only one thread that really needs CPU power.

Even some workstation applications that are supposed to be prime examples of multi-threaded applications are not as multi-core friendly as they appear to be. I ran a lot of Adobe Premier benchmarking with different video formats, and I found out that the second CPU offered a meagre 10% to 40% speed increase in video editing (rendering). 3DSMax shows only big increases when you use very complex scenes. When using a relatively light animation scene, the second CPU adds about 20% to 50%. One of the best scenes, the architecture scene of the Spec test, shows an 89% increase when adding a second Opteron, but two extra Opterons already show some diminishing returns - performance went up to 72%.

Multitasking scenarios might be another way to use the power of dual and multi-cores. However, many of the CPU heavy applications that desktop and workstation users like to run in the background - archiving, encoding - also operate on the hard disk. And despite the merits of NCQ (Native Command Queuing), high rotation speeds, and lower seek times, disk heavy tasks and especially multithreaded ones can bring a whole system to a crawl when there is too much hard disk activity. So, it is clear that there are big challenges ahead before multi-core CPUs will really bring benefits to most consumers and employees.

Threads & Performance


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  • at80eighty - Monday, March 14, 2005 - link

    lame jokes aside... i agree... thats is some serious graphics... im gonna bust a nut or two to have a machine running a game like that at full steam : ( Reply
  • at80eighty - Monday, March 14, 2005 - link


    DEFINE 'sexy' ?

    : )
  • knitecrow - Monday, March 14, 2005 - link

    dual-cored GPUs are stupid

    given the parallel nature of graphics, it makes more sense to just add another pipeline at very little design cost.
  • xsilver - Monday, March 14, 2005 - link

    isnt dual cores also coming to GPU's --- would it be any easier to code for this? eg. one GPU can be assaigned textures and the other GPU the lighting?

    multi cpu will be definitley hard to code for
  • tygrus - Monday, March 14, 2005 - link

    The 124% is misleading but can be explained as valid.
    Intel said 124% more frames per second for a single task from a group of three; not 124% faster for all three tasks. Having the two video encoding running on a separate CPU most of the time could allow the game to have 3x the CPU time while the two video encoding threads get slightly more time. These advantages still have to be reduced because of CPU speed reduction, Mem, disk IO and other bottlenecks. If the required CPU cycles for video encoding, games sound, IO control is almost the same then almost 100% of the extra CPU cycles can be devoted to speeding up the game. I'm sure Intel have the OS and software benchmark to prove it.
  • knitecrow - Monday, March 14, 2005 - link

    In summary, dual core products for the consumer market is hype.

    One thing I know, is that developers want to minimize development costs. Given the immense complexity involved, I expect dual cores taking a VERY VERY long time to catch on... even then it'll be a half assed job.

  • wien - Monday, March 14, 2005 - link

    Ah yes.. Great times for us programmers. I can't want to start debugging those highly multithreaded applications.

    Thanks a lot Intel and AMD!
  • ksherman - Monday, March 14, 2005 - link

    That Unreal Engine is sexy, no? Reply
  • Jynx980 - Monday, March 14, 2005 - link

    This will surely drive up the cost of games, not to mention that you would need a new cpu(s) to take full advantage. Its going to be a tough market to push. Reply

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