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Rise of the Virtual Machines

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When we test a new processor at Trusted Reviews we tend to have a good idea what we’re looking for. A Pentium 4 that increases clock speed from 3.2GHz to 3.4GHz is likely to raise CPU performance by six percent, which may in turn raise system performance by one or two percent. Bumping up the FSB, L2 cache or system memory speed should also raise performance but as we’ll be looking for a small percentage increase we find that the best way to amplify the gains is to run test software that is limited by the CPU. Video rendering is ideal as it drives the processor flat-out and uses all the clock cycles that you can throw at it. Therefore, if you really want to see the benefit of your new processor we suggest that you run POV-Ray, Nero 7 or Windows Movie Maker.

When we saw our first dual-core desktop processor in April 2005 we were impressed by the power that was available for video rendering. However, we found that the single largest boost to productivity came as a result of having two physical cores. We could run an intensive application such as MP3 encoding but were still able to open a browser or navigate around Windows Explorer, just as you would expect to in Windows, but so rarely could do in practice. The dual-core processor completely transformed the usability of the test PC in much the same way that Buffer Under-Run Protection changed CD writing from a fraught process to one that we now do without a second thought.

This new level of usability wasn’t reflected in our test figures because it’s not the sort of thing that you can measure, but it means that you can play games without disabling your anti-virus or worrying whether your e-mail agent is set to send/receive every ten minutes, which is exactly what I want from my PC.

Give it a couple of years and every decent processor will be multi-core while high-end PC s will be using quad-core processors. We expect Intel’s quad-core Kentsfield to launch late-2006, probably going on sale early-2007, with AMD following along somewhere behind later in 2007. Kentsfield isn’t a true quad-core design but instead packs a pair of Core 2 Duos into an LGA775 die, and while you have to wonder how a Northbridge will deal with four cores all demanding access to the system memory I can’t wait to see Kentsfield in action.

You might have thought that there was a stack of desktop PC software that was threaded to take advantage of a multicore processor but you’d be wrong. The big hitters such as 3D Studio Max, Adobe Premiere (Elements), Adobe Photoshop (Elements), Apple iTunes, Cubase, Microsoft Movie Maker, Microsoft Windows Media Encoder and parts of Nero 7 are threaded, and so too are a couple of game engines but I’m not at all sure that we want or need threaded software on the desktop. By all means gang up processor cores on workstations that are rendering the next Pixar movie, if you’re carrying out seismic analysis in the oil industry, or you’re predicting the weather then you’ll want a rack of eight-core servers hammering away at full steam, but we PC boys don’t need that approach.

My PC is running Windows XP and currently has Word, Outlook, Firefox, Steinberg My MP3, a firewall and Sophos anti-virus running, which according to the Task manager, means that there are some 60 processes buzzing away. That is a lot to ask of a dual-core processor but it works very satisfactorily and the last thing I want is for one of the applications to decide that it deserves a whole core all to itself or even, say, one and a half cores.

There was a discussion on one of the forums about Kentsfield – possibly it was Ars Technica - and someone posted the question ‘Why do I need four cores?’ to which a wit responded ‘One core for Windows and three for Norton 2007’, which had a horrible ring of truth about it.

It seems to me that the ideal situation would be to have a hugely multi-cored processor, much like the PS3 Cell, but instead of combining the cores to handle one task i.e. gaming, I’d want each core to handle a designated chunk of the workload. Perhaps MP3 encoding would occasionally run a little slow as it would only have part of the CPU at its disposal but it would definitely run, and so would everything else. While this approach would work it’s really just a way of getting round the inadequacies of the Operating System and the horrible tendencies of each software application to fight for as many resources as it can get. It would also be an inefficient way of using the processor so what I really want is virtualisation.

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