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Who Says You Need Four Cores?

Confessions Of A Guilty Editor

I have a confession to make. Although I work in a lab filled with the latest hardware, my workstation still consists of a 2.8 GHz Pentium 4 processor. Sure, it features Hyper-Threading, but the chip is six years old. Why am I still using it? Because it runs on a platform that has given me nary a problem. It’s stable, fast enough in Vista to drive four monitors with 15 different windows open at any given time, and remarkably quiet in its little Shuttle box.

But everyone has their limits, and after six years, it’s definitely time to move on. As I considered the pieces for my next PC, I first contemplated an affordable quad-core box based on Intel’s Q9300 or AMD’s Phenom X4 9850 BE. No—I’d rather see how low I could go on the system’s thermal footprint while still achieving reasonable performance.

And then it hit me. Do I really need a quad-core processor? Is the software I run really benefiting from the extra complexity? Could I not get more horsepower from dual-core chip? After all, it’d still be a tremendous upgrade from that 2.8 GHz Pentium 4.

In the interest of full disclosure, my workstation doesn’t touch gaming—nor could it, sporting Nvidia’s Quadro NVS 440. For entertainment I turn to a dual-processor Xeon-based machine that can’t be run after 10:00PM for fear of a noise complaint from the neighbors. Nevertheless, I have to imagine that there are plenty of enthusiasts out there with a solid little desktop sputtering along doing menial productivity-type tasks. So let’s take a look at what it means to upgrade to an affordable configuration with modern components as I build my next six-year system.

The Contenders

There are actually several strong platforms available right now that’d be perfect foundations for a basic workstation upgrade. From AMD, the 780G and 790GX both help save money through capable integrated graphics cores. Nvidia’s GeForce 8200 does the same thing. Intel’s P45 chipset looks to be a strong contender if you don’t mind spending some money on an add-in video card.

However, we’re focusing on two specific chipsets here: AMD’s 740G and Intel’s G45. They aren’t meant to go head-to-head—if they were, we could tell you the performance outcome right now. Rather, the former gives us an ultra-affordable entry point for exploring platform performance, while the latter kicks things up a notch with more current technology. Is the 740G enough? Where are our bottlenecks when we make price the priority? Is Intel’s G45 finally up to snuff with regard to graphics? Most important, do you really need a quad-core CPU or will one of today’s dual-core chips serve up enough muscle to stand the test of time?