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Tue 7 Jun 2005 04:00 AM

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Windows Middle East electronic edition 7th June 2005

The most recent hot technology launches have involved the ‘doubling up’ of components. But while it’s true that dual-core CPUs and connected PCI-Express graphics cards can boost performance, for upgraders with limited funds this approach is restrictive, because it means buying more than one new component. If you want serious performance then, start saving…

Dual-Core: Double the Trouble?|~||~||~|This is without a doubt the year of ‘doubling up’. With CPU cores and GPUs (graphics processing units) now being offered in pairs, the potential is for faster, meatier PC performance. If only it was a case of buying one extra component for your PC! Rather frustratingly – particularly for users who don’t have bags of cash – there’s much more to it than that…

AMD and Intel got the dual-core ball rolling a few weeks back with the respective unveilings of their dual-core processors for desktop machines and servers. Intel named its dual-core consumer CPUs ‘Pentium D’ (its older single-core parts will still retain the ‘Pentium 4’ name), and AMD is calling all its dual-core consumer chips ‘Athlon 64 X2’.

To briefly explain, a dual-core CPU combines two independent processors, and their respective caches and cache controllers, onto a single silicon die. While this means that even more circuitry will find its way into a single CPU die, AMD and Intel have managed to keep the die size from increasing drastically and forcing yet another new CPU socket on the motherboard.

Although dual-core processors should deliver superior performance (we’ll find out for sure when we check out our first AMD dual-core CPU in next month’s issue of Windows Middle East magazine), software apps and games will have to be coded specifically with multi-threading in mind for any performance advantage to become really apparent. Initially, dual-core CPUs will also, of course, be relatively high in price. The combination of these two factors means that dual-core CPU use will, at first at least, really be restricted to high-end workstation use. For those who work with graphics, digital video and CAD-based for example, as these types of software are already multi-threaded and therefore set-up to make the most of the second CPU core on offer.

Posing more of a challenge still for home PC performance seekers without bulging wallets, whereas a single improved component such as a more efficient CPU would offer a simple and effective upgrade path, ‘doubling up’ is more complicated - and therefore expensive - than that.

If you decide to go the dual-core CPU route, you’re not only paying more for an extra core, but to use Intel’s offering for example there must be a 955X chipset on your motherboard. If you don’t already have such a mainboard then, this means shelling out US $200+ on a new model, in addition to the cost of the CPU itself.

On the graphics front, ‘doubling up’ refers to using two GPUs – in other words linking two graphics cards - to render each screen you see on the monitor. This approach can potentially double frame rates, making it no doubt of huge interest to gamers and graphics artists. ATi’s multi GPU technology has been launched under the banner ‘Crossfire’, while nVidia calls its comparative technology ‘SLI’ – Scalable Link Interface.

Again though, the money you must spend to really get the best ‘dual’ performance on offer is more than you might think – higher even than going the dual-core CPU route. To get the most from two graphics card, the aim is to have two mid- to high-end SLI or Crossfire based cards running together. This means some hefty spending - certainly hundreds of dollars and, if buying high-end models, even up to and over a thousand. Additionally, as these cards use the newest PCI Express (PCI-E) data interface, your motherboard must also be PCI-E compatible.

Fair enough, you might say… after all, it never was the cheapest pastime being a hardcore PC freak, but wait… there’s more. In addition to spending cash on dual-kit and an appropriate mainboard, these performance technologies also demand more juice, which will likely lead to yet more spending. If you’re running a dual-core CPU for example, and dual graphics cards, you’re really looking at a minimum of 550 watts of power to keep things running and stable. A 550-600 watt power supply from a supplier such as Dubai’s PowerOptionz say, will add between $160 and $225 to your tally. Beginning to see my point here?

The performance benefits associated with doubling up may have captured your eye initially, but don’t forget that in addition to the cost, with double the number of components there is, of course, also double the chance of component failure.

I must point out that I’m not ‘anti’ doubling up, but just regard this piece as a warning. Think about it seriously before you decide that going ‘dual’ is the upgrade path for you. If you’re none too flush in the dollar department, consider just putting some money aside each month for the time being. That way, when you have enough readies to grab all the kit you need, the prices will probably have fallen and you’ll get more for your money.

It will be interesting now to observe whether this dual trend continues, or whether component manufacturers go back to concentrating on getting more from single components. Certainly the firms in question would be well advised to ‘keep it dual’ and plough ahead with both courses of action.
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