Sunday, October 08, 2006

Why Quad-Core Processors Are a Waste of Money

…for at least the next 18 months.

Because they are. Is that a surprise? How important is it to you, personally, to encode three DIVX movies and play counterstrike at the same time? Extremely important? Congratulations. You just defined yourself as a virtually non-existent minority, freak. Let’s examine why for just a second.

Dual-Core Processors (and why they make sense, kind of)

You like writing papers. And listening to music. You might even like downloading and watching movies. Probably, you’ve got at least two programs open on your computer apart from the operating system: AIM and iTunes. Chances are you leave those running most of the time. Welcome to 2006, you don’t need a dual core processor.

You play games as well? Woah there, things just got a little more complicated. Do you make a habit of turning off torrents or Limewire or Morpheus or Bearshare or AIM or Word or Powerpoint or Outlook or Firefox when you play games? If you do, welcome to your savior: dual-core processors. For the first time ever, having two processor cores has a price tag that is reasonable for the average computer user. Before, to enjoy the benefits of Symmetric Multi Processing (SMP from here on out), you would have had to buy a dual-processor motherboard (expensive) and two processors that had SMP enabled (expensive x2). Now, largely due to competition and not consumer demand, you can get a single processor with two cores. So instead of needing all that extra expensive hardware, you can just get a normal system. It looks like Dell sells a dual-core Athlon64 X2 system (with a 19 inch LCD, video card, and a gig of ram) for about 700 bucks – a whole system that’s equivalent to a dual-processor computer for around the same price as a PS3 with a couple of controllers and no TV. If you build it yourself you can get an even better deal.

Now when you boot up Counterstrike to FRAG some NUBS, you can leave all your fancy piracy programs open. Counterstrike will run on one core and most of the rest of the programs (and your OS) will use the other one. Now, instead of getting 62 frames-per-second (FPS) while you’re downloading Zarathura, you can get 88.

What I’m getting at here is that dual core processors have practical uses. They can have an effect on your user experience. They CAN. That doesn’t mean that they WILL. Most people consider 35 FPS to be playable for a game. Once you hit 60, you’ve satisfied an even more vast majority of the minority that plays games on PCs. In my example, you increased your FPS by 16, from 62 to 88. Most people wouldn’t notice the difference there. My single-core computer doesn’t choke when I start up a game while I’m torrenting, never has. Dual-cores may have an effect, but for most people that effect is negligible.

It is, however, convenient. Game runs on one core, everything else on the other. That makes sense, right? But the difference is really not all that tangible at the moment. But in the future it will be.

There are a couple of other cases in which a difference really can be seen. Do you use CAD, ray-tracing, 3d rendering, or video transcoding applications? Dual core processors are for you. In fact, quad-core processors are for you too, as these are applications that are very easily multithreaded (for the meek: glossing over some details, multithreading basically splits a program into multiple threads, each of which can be run on a different processor/core). Don’t know what any of those things I mentioned are? Welcome to the rest of the human race. You don’t really need more than one core.

The other case is the case of “the future.” Right now most of the benefits of dual- and multi-core processors can not be seen. The same goes for the ability of modern processors to process in 64-bit chunks. And for virtualization. There are notable exceptions, but for the most part there are no end-user/consumer applications that take advantage of multiple processors or 64-bit. This is the application support. FOR HARDWARE TO BE USEFUL, THERE MUST BE AN APPLICATION BASE TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT! Currently, that application base does not exist. But it will come; there’ll be pressure from many directions on the developers to start multithreading their applications. So, if you're upgrading and you don't plan to upgrade for a while, splurge for a dual-core. The software will catch up with your computer.

A Case for Dual-Core: Alan Wake

Let’s look at a good example. Remedy, the studio that developed the Max Payne franchise, is set to release a new game in the not-so-distant future. It’s called Alan Wake. At IDF Intel used Alan Wake as an example of a game that took advantage of its new quad-core Intel Quad processor. According to Remedy, the damn thing won’t even run without a dual-core processor. Now, I don’t think that’s how it will end up, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that unless you have a dual-core, you won’t be able to have all the eye-candy and advanced physics turned on.

There’s a reason Alan Wake takes advantage of more than one processor core: They designed from the very beginning to do so. One core was used for the graphics thread – preparing graphical information for processing by the GPU – another was used for game logic – AI and whatnot – a third for physics, and the last for anything else the computer needed to do. This is both a case and a caveat. The case is that Alan Wake is an example of a mainstream program that will take advantage of being able to run multiple threads simultaneously. The caveat is that they had to start working on it as a multi-threaded application, and that of those threads the most taxing one still only runs on one core. This means that most games that are coming out in the next 12-18 months probably won’t be all that well multithreaded. Some might be able to do what Alan Wake does, but even that is crude at this point. Of all those tasks, the really important one is the graphics information; the entire game waits on it to move forward. That’s still assigned to one core. That’s a problem, and it’s not going to be fixed this year, or next year. Probably not even in 2008.

Quad-Core Processors (and why you’re an idiot if you buy one)

So you need that extra power, eh? Those extra cores? That extra FPU power? My roommate just got a system with two dual-core processors in it. What’s it doing right now with all that power? It’s running Seti@home. Four times. It’s really doing a great job processing those work units. What else does it do? Not a whole lot. You do not need a dual-core processor to run games, read email, chat with your friends, or write papers. So don’t buy one. Period. Wait for two years, and then buy one. Then they might be useful, you know, when the software catches up with the hardware. We still don’t even have programs that really take advantage of SSE3 optimizations, and that was released with the Pentium 4 more than two years ago.

What’s the moral of the story? If you must be on the cutting edge, get a dual core. You might even get a chance to take advantage of it. If you’re happy with what you’ve got, sit tight and watch the goofy masses spend their thousands on power that they couldn’t use if they tried.

6 Comments:

Blogger Junho said...

Yes, what you said makes perfect sense. I would go even further and say that most people (besides gamers) don't even need dual core. Dual core affords slight convenience of being able to run two cpu hog programs at once, but most people rarely multi-task to that extent on their pc or laptop. I personally use dual core pc and also a dual cpu/smp work station at my job, but I find very little noticible gain over a reasonably fast single cpu pc (reasonably fast meaning 2Ghz or better, which is below what is now the bottom rung for pcs being sold) which is what I still use at home. At work, I often deal with 8 or 16 cpu server boxes, yet I personally never had desire to have a 8 or 16 cpu machine for my personal computer. But this is what will be offered as "improvement" by the cpu industry in the near future for personal computer users.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Captain Khan said...

Ah
This may have been usefully advice a year ago, but right now quad cores are becoming cheaper, faster, more common and above all, more software are able to use it. As for gamers, i belive quad core was always a must. You may have Xfire (in-game AIM) on, a challenging game running, your operating system obviously and if your like me you may have music playing instead of the sound from the game. Now you can do all of these things at the same speed, above all increasing your frame rates. FSX is a farely CPU based game. I use to have a 3ghz Pentium 4 and rescently bought a 3 ghz Quad core extreme edition. My frames per second more than doubled! And soon there will be patches to allow certain mathematical parts of the game processing to be spread over the other cores thus increasing your frames rates even more (before between 10 and 22 fps, now between 30 and 80 fps) on ultra high graphics settings ...same nVidia 8600 graphics card.

Out dated information with some shit attitude added!

11:14 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

I just built a Core 2 Quad based machine for under $400. 2GB DDR2 800/8500GT/500GB HDD and a 2.43ghz Quad Core Intel.

Cheap, effective...why not? It only cost me $50 to go quad core. I agree that a lot of cpu is completely wasted but encoding my movies is quicker and smoother without ANY lag on the OS, plus I can run my background apps without any noticeable performance hit.

I love it...Dual Core CPU's are the way to go for mainstream..but if you get a good deal a Quad Core necessarily a bad idea!

12:05 PM  
Blogger Matthew Willison said...

After reading this rant/hate speech I would like to say that I've come from Dual Core to Quad Core and I'm running so much faster. Yes you did have some good points but most of this blog post was hate/ranting.

The only thing I got out of that is you don't like quad core for some bizarre reason.

I think quad core is going to be a lot more popular than dual core because it's only a small fee to upgrade from 2 to 4, and as most people know more is usually better.

8:12 AM  
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8:18 AM  
Blogger brenmartin said...

Can't agree more. I bought a quad core with 4 gig ram i was expecting to run faster but alas the CPU does not hit more than 30% at any time and its not any faster.

The only software that seems to run faster are the multi threaded apps like MS Office, Visual Studio and SQL Server that too not a great deal.

Forgot to mention i have got a 64bit windows 7 ultimate installed.
Hope the apps catch up soon for me to appreciate quad core

Very good article though.

brenmartin

6:32 AM  

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