Beyond Dual Core: 2007 Desktop CPU Road Map - The road to 45nm begins here

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Intel advances (continued)

The road to 45nm begins here

Initially, based upon statements Intel released in the middle of 2006, it appeared that Intel would be fairly conservative in terms of CPU releases in 2007. Goals for 2007, as stated by the chipmaker, were to release several new processors based upon the Core 2 architecture. But the company's technology and design priorities would be on improving its fabrication process with the aim of producing 45nm-process CPUs by 2008.

However, toward the end of 2006, Intel indicated that it was ahead of schedule for reaching a 45nm fabrication process. In late November, the company stated that it had already produced a prototype of a 45nm processor, and that it was now hoping to release 45nm processors by the second half of 2007.

Why the emphasis on the shift to 45nm? Beyond the simple metrics of cost -- a 45nm process is smaller than today's state-of-the-art 65nm process, which allows for more CPUs to be manufactured per wafer of silicon -- smaller fabrication processes allow for performance boosts via shorter distances for electrons to travel, faster clock speeds, larger cache sizes and reduced energy consumption.

Another important reason behind the frenzied pursuit of 45nm CPUs: Intel wields a significant advantage over AMD when it comes to fabrication process technology. AMD just released its first 65nm processors in December 2006, and it is not expected to move to a 45nm process until mid- to late 2008. Given the theoretical performance-per-watt advantages that 45nm-process CPUs will possess, Intel's rapid transition to 45nm could place considerable pressure on AMD to catch up.

Enter the 'Penryn' processors

Intel's 45nm process will manifest itself in a microprocessor architecture known only by the code name "Penryn." Not surprisingly, Intel has kept a fairly tight lid on Penryn, but based on rumors and speculation by analysts and experts, it appears that these processors will be based on the Core 2 architecture, but will take advantage of the 45nm processor to provide larger L2 caches and increased performance. (It's worth noting that Penryn will also serve as Intel's mobile processor architecture, with laptop CPUs scheduled for release in early 2008.)

In terms of specific processor releases, Computerworld has heard of a few Penryn-based CPUs that should be released in late 2007. Two dual-core, single-die processors known as "Ridgefield" and "Wolfdale," respectively, could be released as early as the third quarter of 2007. There has been no concrete information regarding the clock speeds of these two processors, but reliable early information has indicated that the Ridgefield processor will have 3MB of shared L2 cache, while the Wolfdale variant will have 6MB of shared L2 cache.

One of Intel's most potentially exciting desktop CPUs is code-named "Yorkfield" and appears to be a 45nm-process quad-core processor that uses a single die (referred to as "native" quad-core) and has an astonishing 12MB of shared L2 cache. When combined with the performance-per-watt advantages of the 45nm processor, this could be Intel's extreme high-end CPU of the year if it is released on schedule at the end of Q3 or the beginning of Q4 2007.

Finally, although the company has not confirmed this in any way, it's entirely plausible that Intel could combine two Yorkfield processors at the end of 2007 to create an octo-core, dual-die, 24MB L2 cache monster.

All the Penryn processors described above will be compatible with Intel's new Bearlake chip set.

As a teaser to what may come beyond 2007, rumors have swirled around a future-gen Intel microprocessor architecture code-named "Nehalem" that will be released in 2008. No details on this architecture have been revealed to date.