Months of torturous fanfare come to a close on Monday as Intel will officially start shipping its family of "Penryn" processors built with a whiz-bang new manufacturing process.
Normally, Intel tries to keep the launch date of a new chip or chip family secret for as long as possible. Even when scurrilous hacks manage to nail down th expected quarter or month of a chip's arrival, Intel will publicly deny any knowledge of the exact timing. In the case of the Penryn chips, however, Intel has flagged Nov. 12 as the day that server and desktop magic will happen to anyone willing to listen.
Intel's pride around the Penryn chips stems from a number of factors, but it's particularly pleased with one item - the new materials used to construct transistor gates. The chip maker will now use Hafnium in combination with a pair of secret metal oxides instead of silicon dioxide to craft the insulation layer of the gate that controls current. The tweaking of the materials counts as the most significant change to transistors in about forty years, according to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore.
Even the mainstream press has latched onto Intel's work. In a very ambitious piece, The Economist, compared Intel's discovery of the exotic Hafnium as its new gate insulator to yestercentury's search for spices.
All told, Intel has solved the leakage issue haunting chip manufacturers by strengthening the gate and can now make chips that run faster while consuming less energy.
Beyond the materials change, Intel is pumping out the Penryn chips on a 45nm manufacturing process, beating its major rivals to this milestone by quite a margin.
As of Nov. 12, Intel will have 12 new quad-core versions of its Xeon server chip available in the Penryn family, which will ship as the Xeon 5400 Series products. The chips will be available at speeds between 2GHz and 3.20GHz with a front side bus topping out at 1600MHz and cache sizes of up to 12MB.
In addition, customers will find the new quad-core Core 2 Extreme QX9650 desktop chip.
Next month, Intel will ship three new dual-core versions of Xeon under the 5200 Series brand.
During the first quarter of 2008, Intel plans to roll out more dual- and quad-core desktop chips along with Core 2 Extreme and Core 2 Duo parts for notebooks.
The fresh 45nm chips shipping in Nov. range in price from $177 to $1,279 in volume. The Core 2 Extreme QX9650 will cost $999 in volume.
This bevy of processors arrives as AMD is struggling to get out even slow versions of its new four-core Opteron chip.
Along with the manufacturing changes that improve the performance and energy consumption features of its chip, Intel has highlighted a number of other beneficial tweaks to the 45nm parts.
Customers will find the Streaming SIMD Extensions 4 (SSE4), which are a set of new instructions that help out with media workloads such as video encoding and photo manipulation. The virtualization crowd has been taken care of via a revamped version of Intel's hard-wired VT technology that speeds up virtual machine entry and exit times by 25 to 75 per cent. And then there's the Ickey Woods memorial Unique Super Shuffle Engine that gives the chips a wider, 128-bit shuffle unit for boosting "SSE-related instructions that have shuffle-like operations." So, we're talking imaging, video and high performance computing stuff.
Overall, it's hard not to be impressed with the Penryn bombardment, especially when you consider this is just the warm up act. Next year, Intel will begin rolling out more 45nm chips - "Nehalem" - that rely on a revamped microarchitecture that includes integrated memory controllers and high-speed interconnect. ®
Register editor Ashlee Vance has just pumped out a new book that's a guide to Silicon Valley. The book starts with the electronics pioneers present in the Bay Area in the early 20th century and marches up to today's heavies. Want to know where Gordon Moore eats Chinese food, how unions affected the rise of microprocessors or how Fairchild Semiconductor got its start? This is the book for you - available at Amazon US here or in the UK here.