Apple jump-starts Nehalem launch for Intel

Apple on Tuesday jumped ahead of Intel in launching the chip maker's quad-core Xeon chips, announcing two workstations that carry the upcoming processors.

Intel hasn't officially announced the launch of the chips, but Apple has started taking orders for new Mac Pro workstations that are powered by Xeon 3500 and 5500 quad-core chips.

The chips are part of the Nehalem-EP line for dual-socket servers and workstations and are based on Intel's new Nehalem microarchitecture.

More server vendors may soon follow in Apple's footsteps by launching servers and workstations with the chips, said Richard Doherty, director at research firm Envisioneering Group.

It may be weeks before systems with the chips come from Hewlett-Packard and Dell, but Apple has routinely been an early adopter of Intel chips, Doherty said. Last year, Intel shrunk a processor specifically for Apple's ultraportable MacBook Air laptop, with the chip 60 percent smaller than standard-size Core 2 Duo processors. Apple was also among the first to put the Penryn-based Xeon chips made using the 45-nanometer process in its Xserve.

For its part, Intel has already started shipping the Xeon chips to computer makers, said Nick Knupffer, an Intel spokesman.

"We have been shipping them to customers since late 2008. There is a lot of excitement around Nehalem-EP, and you'll see this excitement build as we near launch," Knupffer said.

He could not provide an official launch date for the chips. However, Intel officials have said in the past that the chips would appear in systems during the first quarter.

The Nehalem architecture cuts out bottlenecks to improve system speed and power management. The chips integrate a memory controller and provide a faster pipe for the CPU to communicate with system components such as graphics cards and other processors.

Each of the four cores is able to execute two software threads simultaneously, so a quad-core chip could run eight threads at the same time for quicker application performance.

Apple's decision to upgrade the Mac Pro falls in line with the growing adoption of high-definition video, Doherty said. Apple is delivering all the processing power it can get for users to edit real-time HD video through the upgraded Mac Pro workstations, Doherty said. Apple's Mac Pro refresh cycle also loosely coincided with Intel's possible launch of the new Xeon chips, he said.

The eight-core Mac Pro is powered by two quad-core Intel Xeon 5500 processors, with each chip running at 2.26GHz. It offers 8MB of shared L3 cache and 6GB of DDR3 memory, which is expandable to 32GB. It is priced at US$3,299.

The quad-core Mac Pro is powered by a quad-core Intel Xeon 3500 processor running at 2.66GHz series processor with 8MB of L3 cache. It includes 3GB of memory, which is expandable up to 8GB. It is priced at $2,499.

The systems offer 640GB of storage, Nvidia GeForce GT 120 graphics cards and rewriteable DVD drives. They also include multiple PCI, USB and Firewire ports.

Early last month, online retailers started offering quad-core Xeon 5500 chips with speeds between 2.0GHz and 3.2GHz through their Web sites.

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