Intel yesterday launched its long-awaited new line of power-efficient microprocessors, code-named Penryn, designed to deliver better graphics and application performance as well as virtualisation capabilities.

Intel has teamed up with 40 original equipment manufacturers to deliver Penryn-based Xeon and Core 2 processors. Vendors including Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo have already announced business desktops with Penryn-based quad-core Xeon 5400 processors, with more server announcements scheduled to come soon.

The processors, manufactured using a 45-nanometre process, feature smaller transistors and cut down on electricity leaks, which makes them faster and more power efficient than earlier 65nm processors, said Stephen Smith, director for Intel's digital enterprise group operations.

The most power-hungry Penryn-based systems will consume no more than 120 watts. Penryn-based notebooks that are due in the first quarter of 2008 will use 25 watts, Smith said. Today's 65nm notebooks consume 35 watts of power, Smith said.

Power usage

While cutting down on power usage, Penryn processors jump to higher clock rates and feature cache and design improvements that improve the processors' performance compared with earlier 65nm processors.

The processors deliver a 40 per cent to 60 per cent improvement in video and imaging performance. New instructions on the processor speed up photo manipulation and encoding of high-definition video.

Intel's Penryn processor for gaming systems, the 45nm Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650 quad-core processor, takes advantage of the instructions and includes a larger cache to deliver better graphics and video performance.

Hardware enhancements allow virtual machines to load up to 75 per cent faster, Smith said.

The Penryn launch signals a new era in the way Intel manufactures chips, Smith said. The processors are the first to use high-k metal-gate transistors, which make the processors faster and less leaky compared with earlier processors that have silicon gates. The processor is lead free, and by the second half of 2008, Intel will produce chips that are halogen free, making them more environmentally friendly.

Intel will ship 12 new quad-core Intel Xeon 5400 server chips in November with clock speeds ranging from 2GHz to 3.20GHz, with a 12MB cache. In December, it will ship three dual-core Xeon 5200 server chips with clock speeds of up to 3.40GHz and a 6MB cache.

Multiple-phase release

Intel will deliver the 45nm Penryn processors in multiple phases, Smith said. In the first quarter of 2008, Intel will release the 45nm Core 2 Quad processors and Core 2 Duo processors for desktops. In the same quarter, Intel will launch the Core 2 Extreme and Core 2 Duo processors for notebooks. Intel plans to release 45nm processors for ultramobile PCs in 2008, though Smith couldn't provide an exact release date.

Penryn is a significant follow-up to the 65nm Core 2 processor launched last year, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. A lot of business workstation users and gamers are interested in the improved media and system performance Penryn processors deliver, McCarron said.

While the Penryn provides a small performance boost, it's not a major change in architecture, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. Rather than upgrading to Penryn systems, customers may wait for Nehalem, the next big overhaul in Intel's chip architecture that is scheduled for release in 2008, Brookwood said.

At Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco in September, Intel CEO Paul Otellini demonstrated Nehalem, saying it would deliver better performance-per-watt and better system performance through its QuickPath Interconnect system architecture. Nehalem chips will also include an integrated memory controller and improved communication links between system components.

However, people who need to buy hardware now will invest in Penryn systems, Brookwood said. "It's not a massive upgrade cycle on notebooks and desktops," he said.

Pricing of the 45-nm Intel Xeon processors ranges from $177 to $1,279 in quantities of 1,000, depending on the model, speeds, features and number ordered. The 45nm Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650 quad-core processor is priced at $999 in quantities of 1,000.