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Presler, a triumphant farewell?
By their own very high standards it’s been a strangely low-key and rather unexciting year for Intel. The former heavyweight champions have had to take somewhat of a backseat as old adversaries AMD blazed a trail with their single and dual core processors.

For those of us who were around when Intel ruled the roost and AMD played a perpetual game of catch-up it seemed slightly odd to see the old dog being taught new tricks by the young whippersnapper. The unfortunate reality for Intel, is that CPU architectures can’t be conjured up on a whim, and with so much time and money invested into the current NetBurst architecture with its inefficiently long pipelines and poor power efficiency, Intel had little option but to try and squeeze as much revenue as possible from it before finally relegating it to the annals of history.

All the signs are that the newly announced Presler based CPUs will sound the death knell for NetBurst, and I somehow can’t imagine too many people, Intel employees or Intel users will be shedding too many tears over its demise.

So can Intel really revive those Northwood glory days and mount a serious challenge to AMD? With Intel’s muscle the answer is certainly yes, it’s the “when” and “how” that we’re left to ponder. One thing is fairly certain though, and it’s that NetBurst was and is never likely to captain the Intel revival, and so it’s their next generation architecture, which will be debuted with the Conroe core towards the second half of 2006 that should give us our first clues about how big an impact Intel is likely to make for the foreseeable future.

Today though is about the architecture formerly known as Presler, or as we now know it, the Extreme Edition 955 or EE955, a NetBurst derived dual-core architecture built on a 65nm process. The result of doing this is that the same core can be made to run much faster with lower power requirements and less heat production. If at this stage you’re wondering why they didn’t do this sooner, then answer is that the technology simply wasn’t available sooner. In fact AMD’s move to 65nm may still be some 6-12 months away, which demonstrates Intel’s strength in CPU fabrication.

I mentioned that the EE955 is dual core, in fact it differs from Intel’s (and AMD’s) current dual core parts in that rather than fabricate two cores on a single die (monolithic), Intel have instead opted to mount two discrete cores side by side in a single package. This approach is probably more difficult from a technical standpoint but it makes financial sense in that a single fault somewhere means only a single core needs to be trashed rather than both of them.

The EE955 also features EM64T, or “Extended Memory 64 Technology” which allows it to access memory above the 32-bit 4GB limit and to run both 32-bit and 64-bit operations. Arguments abound over whether Intel’s ability to handle 64-bit extensions though their implementation of EM64T is an efficient or even a fair process but that’s not for here.

Also featured on the chip is Intel’s Virtualization Technology which, in a nutshell, allows you to run multiple operating systems or indeed applications side by side, but not in a dual-boot kind of way, they can actually be run simultaneously in their own separate “environments”. This combined with a dual core CPU, independent cache and support for huge amounts of memory could mean at last the chance to run dual OS’es in parallel with no major compromises in performance. Where do I sign up?

Also offered is the slightly techie sounding “Execute Disable Bit”, which is in fact a security feature that stops code executing in certain vulnerable parts of your system memory which malicious code tends to target.

Unfortunately it seems that the much lauded Hyper-Threading will only be available on the Extreme Edition variant of the chip, effectively turning this into a quasi-quad core chip, in theory anyway.

On the bench today we have the Extreme Edition 955 which operates at 3.46GHz and which features two discrete 2MB L2 memory caches, that’s 2MB per core!

For the purposes of this review we’ll be running the EE955 on an Intel Desktop Board D975XBX which is built on the new 975X Express chipset.

Click to enlarge

The Intel 975X Express Chipset enables full support for multiple 2x8 PCI Express graphics card support which also supports ATi’s Crossfire, Intel Memory Pipeline Technology (MPT), Intel Flex Memory Technology, 8GB memory addressability, and ECC memory support.

The Intel MPT has been enhanced to offer improved pipelining to enable a higher utilization of each memory channel, resulting in better performance through increased transfers between the processor and system memory.