Intel's quad-core rings in a new era of enthusiast systems


Bellevue (WA) - We've heard the story over and over again: Dual-cores are the fastest chips you can buy, period. While that claim may be true in many cases, it is especially not true for gaming: Games have not yet embraced multithreading and are lagging behind. Half-Life 2 developer Valve, however, believes that this scenario will change quickly and promises a 3.4x performance gain with four cores.

Valve has been holding its hardware day briefings for some time now. This year, this event coincided, not quite accidentally, with the day Intel lifted the embargo from publishing benchmark results of the first quad-core processor. We were able to report unofficial results some time ago and, if you follow our stories, you already know that the quad-core chip, previously code-named "Kentsfield," is quite a monster in terms of raw processing power.

However, as dual-core chips before, Kentsfield wasn't quite showing its horsepower in games and when Valve told us that it would be shedding some light on performance gains in multi-core gaming, which so far was almost a contradiction in itself, it was a no-brainer to accept the invitation, fly out to Seattle to get the scoop first hand.

Industry sources these days are unusually cautious about quad-core game performance and typically tell us that benchmark results should be taken with a grain of salt and the understanding that purchasing a quad-core system means buying a capability that will arrive in software sometime in the future, I was skeptical of what I would hear. After a few hours with Valve, I am convinced that - at least for gamers and enthusiasts - dual-core is outdated. Quad-core is the way to go. Here is why.

Valve is the first, but certainly not the last, major game developer to announce an aggressive transition of its game engine to multi-threading capability. The company confirmed that it has been working on a transition for about ten months (read: since the release of the Pentium D 900 series) and is coming close to be releasing multi-threading capability in its games: Valve is targeting a "pre Half-Life 2 Episode 2" release sometime in the first half of 2007. Upgrades of older games are planned as well.

Core 2 Extreme QX6700, code-named "Kentsfield"

According to Valve, quad-core will be resulting in more performance and some new features for the user immediately and a lot more features down the road. The company mentioned that frame rates will improve to a certain degree. But at some point, better frame rates may not be the only satisfying feature anymore and we will begin to see new and substantially upgraded features that cannot be supported by today's single- and dual-core processors. Those features will include especially particle simulation, which comes very close to what gamers perceive as physics simulation today. Valve explained that a substantial part of particle simulation needs to be supported by the CPU: In fact, the game developer said that quad-cores are capable of running physics - without the real need of SLI physics, Crossfire physics or a discrete board that carries Ageia's physics processor.

The company hopes that particle simulation will create more physical interactivity that feeds back into the game experience and allows the gamer to feel a "greater presence" within the game.