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HP shows quad-core workstations, confidence in high power on the desktop

HP's new line of quad-core workstations represent a bet that, despite hardware commoditization, some users still want as much power as they can get on the desktop.

HP stepped further into the multi-core market this week as it unveiled its latest workstations, the first of its offerings powered by Intel Corp.'s new Quad-Core processors.

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The company said the computers are designed for applications such as computer-aided manufacturing engineering and digital content creation, which generally require more power than other desktop programs. The new processors are available on HP's xw4400, xw6400 and xw8400 workstations, and the DL360 G5, DL380, ML350 G5 and ML370 G5 series of ProLiant servers.

The xw4400 supports only one chip, but all the others can support up to two Quad-Core processors, which Intel says run about 50-80% faster than their dual-core counterparts.

The announcement was made with some fanfare at a special event called QuadFest. The event ended at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which was demonstrating the quad-core HP workstations it uses to entertain audiences with detailed animations of the universe. But workstations like those at the planetarium will soon be more down to Earth, according to Warren Shiau, associate partner and senior IT analyst for a Toronto-based market research firm called The Strategic Counsel.

"Within a few years, you're going to have some sort of multi-core processor everywhere," Shiau said, predicting that they will become the standard for office desktops.

Increasingly resource-intensive software, such as Microsoft's upcoming Vista operating system, is going to help push the hardware market, according to Shiau.

"There's a lot of push with Vista. Eventually that's going to be the OS that PCs ship with, so that's going to create a need for greater processor power if you want all the functionality of the OS. So I think that's a built-in accelerator" for the multi-core processor market, he said.

But even if quad-cores are the way of the future, Intel's latest offerings aren't quite ready for primetime, according to Todd Swank, director of marketing at Nor-Tech, a Burnsville, Minn.-based manufacturer of PCs. He thinks Intel released the chips, which start at a list price of $999, to show Intel is still competitive with AMD at the high end.

"[Intel] Core 2 Duo was introduced at a $200 price point. Quad-Core is different, it's still [for] the people who can afford to pay $1000 for a CPU," Swank said. "When it's mainstream, I imagine you'll see a much better price point."

He predicted that with Vista coming out at the end of this year and people looking to upgrade, next year will be a good one for computer sales – especially as software developers start taking advantage of more of its features and require more powerful computers as they do so.

"There will be a big base of people that will take a while [to upgrade], but once the compelling aspects of Vista come up, it'll be a tidal wave. It'll come," Swank said. "I'm a big believer in big sales in 2007, I have to tell you."

The faster and pricier new processors could also mean more money per sale for resellers, for whom cheap computers translate to low margins, according to Shiau.

"With multi-core [processors], whether it's a dual-core or the quad-core, there's a lot of incentive to go that way, because you're getting more margin," he said. "With the way prices are dropping, it's becoming really critical to get the best price you can."

He did warn, however, that corporations may not be so eager for blazing speeds.

"The only quirk that I would see is if you don't actually have applications that require the power on the enterprise side," he said. But he added that even in the office, increasingly complex tools such as Microsoft's collaboration products are "putting a lot of functionality onto the desktop that really still needs you to have a good, powerful machine."

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