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Understanding Intel Desktop Processors: 2010 Edition

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Intel currently offers a bewildering variety of processors with "Core" as part of the name, and that's not all. Baffled by the differences between Core i7 and i5? Wondering why the "2" in Core 2 doesn't refer to the number of processor cores? What's under the hood of the latest Pentium and Celeron chips? Veteran hardware expert Mark Edward Soper, co-author of CompTIA A+ 220-701 and 220-702 Cert Guide, helps you make sense of the names and numbers in the first of three articles about current processor families. In part 1, he deciphers Intel's current desktop processor offerings.
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Both Intel and AMD have made a lot of changes to their processors since the epic Pentium 4 versus Athlon XP performance battles of a few years ago.

Thanks to Intel's adoption of processor model numbers, it's harder than ever before to figure out exactly what a particular computer has "under the hood" without looking up the processor specs.

In this article, you'll discover the characteristics of Intel's current desktop processor families, giving you a leg up when it's time to shop for a new computer or consider upgrading a desktop with a new processor and motherboard.

Current Desktop Processor Design Trends

As 2010 begins, desktop processor design trends fall into these categories:

  • Multicore rules—Virtually all processors now feature two or more processor cores in both desktop and mobile versions. Multiple processor cores enable better multitasking (especially when 3GB or more RAM is available) and superior performance with multithreaded applications.
  • Performance, not raw clock speed, is king—By the standards of the late Pentium 4 era, which saw many high-performance processors running over 3.5GHz, today's fastest processors run at more modest clock speeds, but get more done per clock cycle. As a result, benchmark test results have become a more reliable indicator of processor and system performance than processor clock speed.
  • 64-bit designs have taken over the marketplace—Virtually all processors now feature 64-bit support, enabling them to run 64-bit versions of Windows and other operating systems. 64-bit support enables the use of RAM beyond 3GB, better multitasking, and faster performance with large files when large amounts of RAM are available.
  • Hardware virtualization support is widespread, but far from universal—The increasing popularity of virtualization as a convenient means of operating system/application testing and support for legacy software has helped drive the development of processors with hardware virtualization support. However, Intel and AMD have taken drastically different approaches: Although AMD has integrated hardware virtualization support into almost all of its recent and current processors, Intel's support for hardware virtualization in its processors is spotty and confined to the upper price ranges of some processor families.

In this article (part 1 of a three-part series), you'll discover how Intel's current desktop processors are putting these trends into action.

In part 2, you'll learn about Intel's current mobile processors. In part 3, we'll take a closer look at AMD's current processors.

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