Announcing it had found a way to strike a new balance between power and performance, Intel on Tuesday said it would release three new dual-core processors in coming months.

They include Merom for mobile platforms, Conroe for desktops and Woodcrest for servers, said Justin Ratner, Intel's chief technology officer. The three chips were innitially announced at IDF in August. While many industry watchers speculate the new Conroe chip could debut in Apple's future Power Macs, technology site Hexus maintains that Apple will see some limitations in its ability to use the Conroe chip due to "very distinct boundaries with the Intel CPUs".

Energy, performance efficieny

All three share a design called Intel Core Microarchitecture, which combines the energy efficiency of the company's Pentium M and Core Duo processors with the high performance of its Pentium 4 and Xeon products.

"Beginning with the Pentium in 1993 and the Pentium 4 today, every increase in performance has brought a corresponding increase in energy used," he said. "We found a way out. Today we're at the dawn of a new age of energy-efficient processing."

In mobile hardware, Merom processors will increase performance by 20 per cent while keeping battery life constant, compared to Intel's Core Duo T2600. In desktops, Conroe processors will increase performance 40 per cent while reducing power draw by 40 per cent, compared to Intel's Pentium D 950. And in servers, Woodcrest will boost performance 80 per cent while reducing power draw 35 per cent, compared to the Xeon 2.8GHz 2x2MB.

Those numbers sound impressive, but market trends show that Intel has been losing some of its enormous market share to rival AMD.

AMD steps up the challenge

AMD made its own announcement on Monday, announcing three new dual-core Opteron processors. AMD, based in Sunnyvale, California, also focused on energy, saying the new products reduce power consumption and cooling requirements while increasing performance per watt.

They include the Model 885 for enterprise-class servers and Model 285 for high performance workstations, both available now. The Model 185 for smaller servers and workstations will be available within 30 days.

While he never mentioned AMD by name, Ratner shared their focus on multicore computing.

Quad processor promise

Intel will release a series of quad-core processors in 2007, Ratner promised. Using Intel's corporate nicknames, those chips are codenamed Clovertown and Kentsfield. He denied plans to double the number of cores yet again in 2008.

Instead, Intel will use the extra space in the power budget to boost its capabilities in virtualisation, a model of cluster computing that gains efficiency by sharing resources. In 2007, the company will offer VT-d, "virtualisation technology for directed I/O."

"As Centrino brought wireless computing to the masses, VT hardware will bring virtualisation to the data centre of the future," said Pat Gelsinger, Intel's senior vice president in the digital enterprise group. "We've shown you Intel 3.0; the next generation of Intel."

Tiny brains

Intel processors are also growing smaller. The three new products announced Monday use smaller process dies to achieve their mix of power and efficiency. All three will be produced on 65-nanometre technology, which reduces power draw by 30 per cent and increases transistor performance by 20 per cent compared to Intel's own 90-nanometre processors.

Likewise, Intel will produce processors in 2007 on 45-nanometre technology, again reducing power draw and boosting transistor performance compared to today's 65-nanometre crop of products.

Market competition will tell whether Intel's announcement succeeds in meeting the challenge presented by AMD.

We won't have to wait long to find out; Intel's new processors will reach the market quickly. Also at the trade show, partner company Hewlett-Packard announced its plans to launch seven ProLiant computers with Intel's new Dempsey or Woodcrest processors, from workstations to servers and blades.