Intel Flexes Its Quad Core

The release of the processors puts the company several months ahead of rival chipmaker AMD.
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After looking like it was asleep at the wheel for some time,

Intel

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has swung into adrenaline mode, displaying the fighting spirit investors have been clamoring for.

The Santa Clara, Calif., chip giant on Tuesday is introducing new processors that pack four separate cores. The product launch comes only a few months after Intel overhauled its entire line of microprocessors with chips based on its new Core microarchitecture.

It's an aggressive pace as measured by Intel's own track record. It also puts the company several months ahead of rival

Advanced Micro Devices

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, which is not expected to release a quad-core chip until mid-2007.

"From a PR standpoint for Intel, it certainly signals very strongly that they're back in the game after a few years where things have been a little soft," says Steve Kleynhans, an analyst with industry research firm Gartner.

How much of an advantage Intel's lead time will translate to in sales, however, is another matter.

"There is an imbalance, and it's certainly an advantage for Intel," says Kleynhans. "But it's an advantage in a fairly small portion of the market."

Intel is releasing five quad core processors Tuesday, geared for servers and workstation PCs, in keeping with its announcement at the company's fall developer forum in San Francisco.

According to Intel, the new quad-core processors provide major improvements in performance and power consumption over its current class of chips.

"The capabilities of quad-core microprocessors will bring new possibilities for science, entertainment and business," Intel CEO Paul Otellini said in a statement.

Intel says it is not pricing the new quad-cores at a premium compared with its recently released dual-core chips. But premium or not, the initial versions of its quad-core chips are clearly aimed at the high end of the market.

The Core 2 Extreme quad-core, with its $999 price tag, is aimed at gamers who don't mind paying more for the latest and the greatest, and people who use workstations for jobs such as video-editing.

Similarly, Intel's first batch of Xeon 5300 quad-core chips will initially appeal to a certain class of corporate buyers, running multithreaded applications for specific tasks.

And licensing issues with certain software, which can result in higher fees for computers packing multiple processors, might lead some customers to hold off on quad-core servers.

Nor-Tech

, which sells branded and "white-box" computers to system resellers, says it doesn't expect to offer Intel's quad core in its servers and PCs until the first quarter of 2007 when the chips become more mainstream in terms of pricing and any reliability kinks have been ironed out.

"Our customer base is going to take a little bit of a wait-and-see approach," says Nor-Tech Director of Marketing Todd Swank.

Of course most of the initial supply of quad-core chips will go to first-tier companies like

Dell

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, which announced

servers and workstations based on the new Intel chips last week.

Meanwhile, AMD says it will have its quad-core chip, code-named Barcelona, available by the middle of 2007, and adds that it will release versions of the chip geared for the entire spectrum of servers, including both two-socket and four-socket machines.

AMD is also going out of its way to characterize Barcelona as a "native" quad core, as opposed to Intel's version, which it says is really a pair of Core 2 Duo processors on one chip.

"Time to market really only matters when you bring the right products to market," says AMD spokesman Phil Hughes, in regard to trailing Intel with a quad-core processor.

Whether AMD's approach to quad cores provides a meaningful performance advantage over Intel's design won't be known until chips from both companies are available and can be compared side by side.

But regardless of the debate over what constitutes a true quad-core processor, it's clear that Intel has stepped up its game in the face of competition with AMD.

To some investors, that's good news enough.