Multicore technology, which allows one processor to work on many tasks at the same time, is just getting started. Within a couple of years, the quad-core chips Intel has just launched will feel quaint. Intel microprocessor expert Jerry Bautista says he's built chips with eight cores: "Up to eight works well for productivity applications. But thousands of cores are possible. The trick is finding what's practical."

While dual-CPU (central processing unit) Xeons have been around for a while, this kind of power is finally coming to your desktop. Intel launched its first Kentsfield quad-core chips in November 2006. AMD's alternative, K8L, is slated for mid-2007. The limit for multicore technologies is a software issue as programs must be redesigned to take advantage of parallel processing on a large scale. But expect to see dramatic performance improvements in complex programs.

Adobe's director of product management Simon Hayhurst says most of the company's video applications already have elements that can make use of many cores. Adobe's previous efforts to design applications that take advantage of hyperthreaded CPUs work on multicore CPUs, too. "The beauty of this approach is that we can write one piece of code that is hyperthreaded, which will scale up or down to multiple cores. We can soak up many more cores than are available today," he says.

And the great leap in multicore processors is likely to improve AI (artificial intelligence). According to Intel's Bautista: "A video game's AI will be indistinguishable from what a person would do," forcing the player to take cover and track opponents organically rather than following an established script. Such intelligence will extend to other applications.
"You'll be able to search through thousands of photos and videos for people, certain backgrounds or even specific facial expressions," he says.

Despite these performance boosts, Intel and AMD are making every effort to ensure your PC won't consume more power or generate more heat as chips become faster, smaller and more efficient. This is positive news for laptops, whose performance has suffered due to heat and power constraints.

AMD chief technical officer Phil Hester notes that mobility will become a major driver for the company – the acquisition of graphics-chip maker ATI will be key to this. Power management will be improved to the point where a device the size of a PDA can produce PC-like graphics.

But memory bandwidth must grow to keep up with the CPU. Even hard disk input/output will have to handle faster data transfers. Want realistic online gaming? Your web connection needs to scale. And what of Moore's Law, which states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 months? "It's still alive and well," says Bautista.

He thinks that parallel processing, which splits a workload among many cores, makes it more likely to continue. "

Multiple, smaller cores are easier to build… as the manufacturing process continues to shrink."

Read more: the future of technology revealed