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TR's report on CES International 2005

Convergence converges on Vegas

IF WE LEARNED anything from the Consumer Electronic Show's 2005 edition, it's that PCs will be gaining TiVo-like functionality as a standard feature this year. Not only that, but this new capability will apparently come courtesy of Microsoft. Seemingly every motherboard maker, system builder, graphics card company, and widget manufacturer at the show had a box running Windows XP Media Center Edition. Windows MCE was easily the story of the show as far as PCs are concerned.

For us, however, adding a TV Tuner card, a remote, and a new software layer to a PC wasn't quite as impressive as it might have been for others. We've seen it all before, and for quite some time. There were, however, other interesting bits of hardware and info lurking at CES 2005, and we concentrated our efforts on digging up, documenting, and photographing them. Read on to get our company-by-company take on the hardware side of CES 2005.

Intel surprised us by showing off a dual-core CPU demo with something more than just a pair of Pentium 4 processors situated together in a common package. They actually had what they claimed was a real, working demo of the upcoming dual-core processor based on the P4/Netburst architecture, code-named "Smithfield." I believe they said the clock speed on this chip was 3GHz. We honestly didn't expect to see a live demo of Smithfield this soon, and the fact that Intel had a real chip running at CES would seem to indicate that its dual-core Pentium 4 product will be ready to roll sooner than expected. Intel has said its dual-core desktop part will arrive at some point in 2005, and usually such a nebulous target would point toward a December 31, 2005 launch. In this case, though, I would expect to see a dual-core desktop part well before year's end—perhaps as soon as mid-year.

Intel's dual-core demo shows two CPUs—without Hyper-Threading

The dual-core system was housed in an HTPC enclosure

Oddly, the dual-core system did not have Hyper-Threading enabled, which would have made the dual-core CPU appear as four CPUs in Task Manager. Apparently, Intel is planning some versions of its dual-core parts without Hyper-Threading. We asked about the reasoning behind this decision and were told that some applications couldn't tell the difference between a physical and logical CPU, and thus Hyper-Threading might not be the best choice. As someone who used a dual-processor Xeon workstation with Hyper-Threading for quite a while, I am not sure what to make of this approach. The Windows XP kernel is Hyper-Threading-aware and seems to do a decent job of allocating tasks across multiple logical and physical CPUs appropriately. Perhaps some of the dual-core optimization methods Intel is pushing don't work so well with Hyper-Threading enabled.

Intel is also preparing new chipsets to go with the dual-core processors, although they didn't have much to say about them just yet.

In the more immediate future, some time in Q1 2005, Intel is set to launch its Pentium 4 600-series processors and a new Extreme Edition CPU based on the Prescott core. Both the 600-series and the Extreme Edition will feature 2MB of L2 cache and Intel's EM64T 64-bit extensions. The P4 Extreme Edition will feature a 1066MHz front-side bus, while the 600 series will stay with the 800MHz bus speed. The 600 series will also feature an enhanced version of Intel's SpeedStep technology for power saving, familiar from the Pentium M lineup.

One Intel chipset was on display all over CES, including in Intel's booth, although it hasn't officially launched yet. Code-named "Alviso," this chipset will bring the feature set of the 915 chipset to the Centrino platform, including PCI Express and dual channels of DDR2 memory. Alviso will also bump the Pentium M's front-side bus speed up to 533MHz.

We asked the folks from Intel what they thought of the desktop motherboards now showing up for the Pentium M processor. Somewhat surprisingly, they responded by talking about "what the market will demand," an approach that leaves open the possibility the Pentium M could make serious inroads into non-mobile applications. We also asked about whether we might see Pentium M motherboards based on Intel's desktop chipsets for the Pentium 4, since the Pentium M shares the same basic bus protocol. They allowed that such things might be possible, but said that Intel would not validate or document the use of the Pentium M with desktop chipsets.

We also quizzed Intel's reps about the High Definition Audio spec, specifically about the quality of audio actually produced. They acknowledged that not all current solutions sound as good as they should, and they said that the next stage in HD Audio's growth will be to clean up the output stage. The company is working on this problem and will try to share information with its partners about how best to implement HD Audio. The suggestions could range from simple, cost-free tips about not routing USB 2.0 across the audio output lines on a motherboard to costlier recommendations about which components to use.

Also on the chipset front, we chatted for a bit about Intel's video drivers for its GMA 900 graphics core in the 915G chipset. We have, in the past, had quite a bit of trouble getting games to run on this graphics core. Intel claims to be ramping up its driver development effort for the GMA 900. Apparently, the driver team looks at the top 25 best-selling games in order to measure compatibility, and in the latest round of internal tests, 22 of the 25 games ran properly. Obviously, Intel's main focus for this low-end, chipset-based graphics core isn't gaming, but they do want to provide a decent out-of-box experience for users.

The big news from AMD at CES was the announcement of the Turion 64 brand name. This was, quite literally, a branding announcement and not much else. We poked, proddied, pried, and cajoled AMD's reps to give us info about the Turion 64, but we were only able to shake loose a few basic bits of information. The Turion 64 will go head-to-head with Intel's Centrino in the thin-and-light laptop market, but unlike Centrino, the Turion 64 brand name does not encompass a CPU, chipset, and networking solution. Instead, the Turion 64 is a CPU. AMD says that its customers, the big PC manufacturers, don't want a branded platform, because it would erode their own brands. Instead, AMD will work with PC makers and encourage them to make choices that complement the Turion brand. AMD has had a hard time getting thin-and-light laptops built using its processors in the last couple of years, so this push is sorely needed.

The Turion 64 CPU will be based on the same AMD64 architecture that powers the Athlon 64 and Opteron, but it will be "optimized" for mobile applications. AMD implied that the Turion would surpass the 35W power envelope of the Mobile Athlon 64, but they wouldn't say how this chip might accomplish that feat.

AMD also showed us its latest roadmap, circa November 24, 2004, which can currently be found online here. The Turion would appear to correspond with the "Lancaster" core on that roadmap. Lancaster will be made on AMD's 90nm SOI process, and will be a low-voltage chip. The company promises that more info on the Turion will be available when laptops based on the CPU appear later in the first half of 2005.

Despite the Turion announcement, the Mobile Athlon 64 will continue to do battle against the Mobile Pentium 4 in the desktop replacement market. In fact, although it didn't show up on the roadmaps, AMD's reps told us the company plans to introduce a dual-core processor for desktop replacement-class notebooks.

Beyond things mobile, AMD said that 90nm Opterons were not shipping yet, but will be in the "very near future." Update: AMD informs us that they were wrong about the 90nm Opteron shipping status. 90nm Opterons began shipping for revenue on December 7, 2004.