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Last Updated: Monday, 28 April, 2003, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
Faster chips on the horizon
With a new generation of home PCs using 64-bit chips due to go on sale within the year, BBC ClickOnline's Chris Long looks at the quest for faster processing.

AMD's 64-bit chip
AMD planning 64-bit chips for home computers
Processors started off with four bits. Then they went to eight, then 16, and then to 16 with eight in and eight out.

Then they went to 32 but not full 32. And then it went to 32 bits proper and after that 64 bits.

It might all sound confusing but the bottom line is the more bits you have, the mightier the processor.

The processor is the brain of a computer. It runs the operating system and applications, so the more powerful the processor the faster the operating system and the applications are.

You can run the processor faster, much as you can run an engine faster. Or you can rebuild the processor and give it more bits to play with, much like increasing the size of an engine by adding cylinders.

Number-crunching

The first ever processor, born in 1971, was called the 4004. It was a four-bit chip, made by Intel. It was only powerful enough to power an adding machine.

Itanium 2 chip
For the Itanium 2, Intel has modified the chip's instruction set
Now there is the Itanium 2, Intel's latest 64-bit processor.

To achieve its 64 'bitness', though, Intel has not only added the extra bits but has modified the chip's instruction set - the internal commands that run the processor.

In other words the processor needs a special 64-bit version of Windows to run Microsoft's operating system, and 64-bit programs to run on that.

The key question is whether home users need computers that can crunch numbers far more deftly than the machines on most people's desks.

"Today all the applications, and all the desktop operating systems run with 32-bit code. So it does not make any difference if you have a 64-bit processor or not," said Intel's Sharad Ghandi.

Faster machines

Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices, (AMD), has a different message for consumers.

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It is planning to introduce the first 64-bit chips for home computers in September.

"Over time 64-bit computing for the consumer will take over just as 32-bit superseded 16-bit," predicted Hector Ruiz, AMD's Chief Executive Officer.

A computer using AMD's Athlon 64 chip will be able to run software designed for today's machines, but it will not be much faster than any other computer.

"Now, if you buy our 64-bit chip you can process the old 32-bit applications and the new 64-bit applications, which will start appearing on the market in the first quarter of next year," said Mr Ruiz.

Consumers may feel confused by Intel and AMD's number game, but there can be little doubt that this is the year of 64 bits.




SEE ALSO:
Computer chips pushed to edge
26 Feb 03  |  Technology
Intel chief sees brighter future
19 Feb 03  |  Technology
Chip industry recovery 'fragile'
16 Dec 02  |  Business
AMD to cut 2,000 jobs
14 Nov 02  |  Business


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