Intel has announced a new PC platform aimed squarely at gamers with the need for speed and money to burn.
Code-named Skulltrail, the platform will use two of Intel's hot new quad-core processors - yes, that's a total of eight CPU cores - and will have four PCI Express slots for video cards. No prices have been announced at this point, but not surprisingly, it's predicted to be extremely expensive. Intel's newest quad-core processor, unveiled April 9 as the Core 2 Exteme QX6800, runs at 2.93GHz and is expected to cost $1,199.
Some gamers may see the clock speed as underwhelming for such a hefty price tag, but for various reasons - heat management issues chief among them - the industry has been moving away from its traditional practice of improving performance by simply cranking up CPU speeds. In a move somewhat analogous to the automotive industry, which was forced to step away from its "better performance means bigger engines" philosophy decades ago, chipmakers have responded to the limitations of current technology by placing more CPU cores on a single chip, thereby "spreading the work around."
While this sort of technological shift is currently of little benefit to mainstream users and applications, it provides significant performance boosts to multitasking and in software optimized for multi-core operation. Right now, that means games.
It's a change that poses a unique dilemma for game developers: the conventional design principle of, "the faster the processor, the faster the game," does not necessarily hold true on multi-core processors. Games must be designed and programmed specifically to take advantage of a dual or quad-core CPU, or the performance benefit will be nil. In fact, since some multi-core chips are actually running at slower clock speeds than the highest-end single-core CPUs, in some instances gamers may actually see a reduction in performance with older and unoptimized titles.
Some developers have released patches for existing titles to help with multi-core performance, but in order to maximize the performance benefits, games need to be developed for this new style of CPU from the outset. Both Intel and AMD have been encouraging developers to commit to this new technology, with AMD even sponsoring a coding competition in 2006, but it's a slow process. PC game development tends to be a long-term project, and shifting gears so dramatically in the middle of a project is often unfeasible, or at least unpalatable.
In spite of that, the change appears inevitable. Dual-core CPUs are becoming standard in modern PCs, with quad-core processors not far behind, and both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles are packing multi-core chips as well. While the current list of games supporting the technology is small, the performance benefits of multi-core-native games is undeniable. Combined with the proliferation of dual and quad-core-based computers at even mid-range levels, the prevailing belief is that developers will eventually be forced to move with this trend simply to remain competitive.
In the meantime, for the wealthy and the hardest-of-the-hardcore, Skulltrail promises to offer a glimpse into the future of of the PC. More details - and hopefully a name change - will be announced as the platform approaches release.