Why Bother with Three Cores?

The table below shows the problem with four cores:

SYSMark 2007 Overall E-Learning Video Creation Productivity 3D
Intel Celeron 420 (1 core, 512KB, 1.6GHz) 55 52 55 54 58
Intel Celeron E1200 (2 cores, 512KB, 1.6GHz) 76 68 91 70 78
% Increase from 1 to 2 cores 38% 31% 65% 30% 34%
Intel Core 2 Duo E6750 (2 cores, 4MB, 2.66GHz) 138 147 141 120 145
Intel Core 2 Quad Q6700 (4 cores, 8MB, 2.66GHz) 150 145 177 121 163
% Increase from 2 to 4 cores 8.7% 0% 26% 1% 12%

When going from one to two cores, overall system performance increases a decent amount. SYSMark encapsulates a wide variety of applications and usage models and overall performance increases by close to 40%. Obviously areas like video encoding (represented in the Video Creation tests) see the biggest gain, but all aspects of performance increase tremendously. Making the argument for two cores these days isn't a difficult one, most desktop applications can at least take some advantage of two cores.

Looking at the move from two to four cores however reveals much worse scaling. In our 1-to-2 core comparison cache size didn't increase, so the theoretical scaling could actually be even higher but in the 2-to-4 core comparison the total L2 doubles since Intel's quad-core processors are simply two dual-core die on a single package. Despite the increase in cache size however, scaling is quite poor. Overall performance goes up 8.7% percent and the E-Learning/Productivity tests see no gains at all. Once again the biggest gains come from the Video Creation tests, followed by the 3D suite.

For the vast majority of systems, four cores just aren't necessary. There are some applications that do scale very well between 2 and 4 cores, but the overall landscape is much like what we saw with dual-core CPUs circa 2005, the time for quad just isn't now. Intel's CPU shipments also reflect that both the need and demand for quad-core CPUs just isn't very high:

Currently, less than 10% of Intel's consumer desktop CPU shipments are quad-core and that number won't grow much beyond 10% by the end of 2008. But just like the early days of dual-core, we'll see a steady ramp up continuing in the years ahead.

The point here isn't that quad-core processors aren't necessary, rather they aren't quite in their prime as far as demand goes. With such a small portion of the market purchasing quad-core CPUs, the ISVs aren't exactly jumping at the opportunity to make sure all applications scale well from 2-to-4 cores. Some inherently won't scale while others may with additional effort, which requires a large install base and once more we find ourselves in the midst of an overused analogy involving chickens and eggs.

For Intel, a slow adoption of quad-core CPUs isn't much of a problem. It's just as easy to make a Core 2 Quad as it is to make a Core 2 Duo, the former simply has two dual-core die on the package instead of one. For AMD however, things are a lot more complicated.

One often cited reason for Phenom's late arrival was its "native" quad-core design. Due to its on-die memory controller/north bridge, AMD could not simply take two Athlon X2 die and individually place them on the same package; all four cores would have to be behind the memory interface, meaning that all four cores would have to be on the same die.

Number of Cores Manufacturing Process Transistor Count Die Size
AMD Phenom X4 4 65nm 450M 285 mm^2
AMD Phenom X3 3 65nm 450M 285 mm^2
AMD Athlon X2 2 90nm 243M 219 mm^2
AMD Athlon X2 2 65nm 221M 118 mm^2
Intel Core 2 Quad 4 65nm 582M 286 mm^2
Intel Core 2 Duo 2 65nm 291M 143 mm^2
Intel Core 2 Quad 4 45nm 820M 214 mm^2
Intel Core 2 Duo 2 45nm 410M 107 mm^2

Looking at the die size column you can see an issue with AMD's current processor lineup. AMD likes building the 65nm Athlon X2s, they are nice and small at 118 mm^2 per die and it can make a lot of them on a single 65nm wafer. The Athlon X2 6400+ is still built on a 90nm process and its die, by comparison, is huge; AMD doesn't like making these chips very much (update: AMD has actually ceased production of 90nm X2s altogether).

Then we have Phenom. At 285 mm^2, Phenom is huge and AMD can't make that many per wafer, plus with such a large die the yield is lower than on a smaller chip. The triple-core Phenom X3 gives AMD something to do with those quad-core die that have a single defective core, rather than throwing the entire chip away it can now be repackaged and sold as a triple-core processors.

The other problem here is that there is no dual-core Phenom, so AMD must battle Intel's 45nm dual-core processors with its very old 65nm Athlon X2s. The Phenom X3 is designed to help alleviate the burden of those poor K8s by competing with Intel's dual-core in the sub-$200 space. It's a great marketing story too: you can get three cores from AMD for the price of two from Intel.

It's more likely than not that AMD's yields aren't bad enough to have too many quad-core Phenom processors with two defective cores, which is probably why we don't see a 285 mm^2 Phenom X2.

AMD has no plans to make a separate triple-core die, simply because it would require quite a bit of engineering resources and the need for triple-core CPUs diminishes over time as quad-core adoption increases. Right now AMD is focused on bringing its 45nm Phenom processors to market and those are occupying all of AMD's availability engineering resources. Should triple-core prove to be a worthwhile addition to the lineup, AMD could always work on designing a tri-core die but for now it will fulfill its role as a stopgap solution.

Index A New CPU & Intel's Biggest Problem


View All Comments

  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, April 23, 2008 - link

    The problem is without support in 100% of the titles it's not something you can really count on. If you go with too slow of a CPU, hoping to rely on GPU acceleration but then try and play a rip that isn't accelerated you're just out of luck.

    Regardless, I'm just waiting for the day when all platforms feature GPU acceleration :)

    Take care,
  • ViRGE - Wednesday, April 23, 2008 - link

    "Now if you pirate your HD movies then none of this matters, as GPU accelerated H.264 decode doesn't work on much pirated content."

    Sure it does, the Cyberlink H.264/MPEG-2 decoder is a complete DirectShow-compliant module. Anything H.264 that can be played in a DirectShow application is accelerated by it, both legit and pirated content.
  • 0roo0roo - Thursday, April 24, 2008 - link

    it doesn't matter either way. pirated h264 content tends to be lower bitrate versions of the full hd rip.
    even at full bitrate it doesn't matter as processors have come to a point where even budget dual cores can decode h264 quite well.
  • ChronoReverse - Wednesday, April 23, 2008 - link

    And on the free software side, Media Player Classic Home Cinema (what a mouthful) also has GPU accelerated decode now too (only for the newer video cards though).

    While not all pirate content are encoded in a manner that can be accelerated, the functionality is available now.

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