Two's Company but Three's a Crowd

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The race for raw speed is taking a pause; now PC makers are pitching more "cores" to sell new PCs. And according to reports this week from chipmakers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, the new multicore processors are going to help awaken a slumbering PC market.

Problem is, after living with one of the early multicore chip machines for several months, I'm unimpressed.

The chipmakers, and PC assemblers like Dell and HP, suggest the new processors put several computers into one box. They are essentially putting several chips on a chip–doubling, or more, the computer's main brain, the microprocessor. It's like having a worker on a small platform and instead of paying him to move more quickly, you squeeze on a second to work alongside. PC makers concede they don't work as fast as two individuals–it is a tight squeeze, after all–but that we'll get more bang for the buck than by pumping up individual speeds.

In my case, I'm running an AMD processor that has two cores. But little of the software that I use day-to-day takes advantage of the added power, and even when running many programs at a time, I wouldn't tax even a single processor. The companies acknowledge that consumers won't get the full benefit of multiple cores until software is rewritten, and that could take years.

Still, the hype has helped AMD, which took the lead in multicore chips and grabbed market share from the much larger Intel. That continued last quarter, according to the recent quarterly reports from both companies. But Intel said it's having success with its new line of multicore processors, including what will be the first quad-core chips. Both companies talk of chips coming soon with eight and more cores. It's still a race, in other words, even if the horses have changed.