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Tag Archives: Intel

The Future’s Full Of Holes

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Optochip

If you’re like most of the population, you only upgrade your computer every couple of years, if that. I was recently surprised (and, I’ve got to admit, more than a little pleased) to discover that the computer shop closest to home still sold old-style PS/2 style keyboards. Sure, they were only two bucks a pop, which suggests they’re not exactly a high-demand item. Still, USB supplanted PS/2 as a connection methodology more than a decade ago, and their retail presence does suggest that most of us are getting a lot of wear and tear out of our expensive IT purchases. That’s a good thing, both from a value for money and environmental standpoint.

One of the benefits that you get when upgrading if you’ve held onto your current computer for any decent length of time is the jump in system and processor speeds that will have happened while you were getting a useful service life out of your old PC. It’s not a new idea, but it’s still true today; when buying new IT equipment it pays to buy at the top of the speed curve relative to your budget. You might not need that new speed today, but it’ll ensure that your purchase remains current for quite a bit longer as the applications of tomorrow are still well suited to the speeds your system can maintain. Conversely, buying as cheap as possible will get you yesterday’s technology, and while you may be able to run things today, you may find some of tomorrow’s applications beyond the grunt of a simple system. It’s a fine balancing act — it’s certainly possible to spend too much on a system with components you won’t use as well.

So what’s current and upcoming in the PC world, anyway? On Intel’s schedule for the very near future are its next generation “Ivy Bridge” processors; these feature improved onboard graphics, USB 3.0 support, better power management — and naturally they’re claimed to be faster. AMD’s continuing on its path of “Fusion” processors — systems where the processor has a full DirectX11-compatible graphics processor built in, making them highly competitive with Intel’s processor parts, although in pure market terms Intel’s still the big shark to AMD’s minnow. Looking even further forward into the types of optical chips that high end servers use, IBM’s just revealed a technology it’s calling “Holey Octochips” — and that’s not just a prototype name that somebody drew out of a hat. IBM’s Holey design quite literally takes a chip wafer and blasts forty-eight holes into it so that laser light can pass through it; IBM’s claim is that this gives the eventual chip data processing capabilities of up to one trillion bits per second. Fast, in layman’s terms. You won’t be using a holey octochip on this or even next year’s PCs — it’s still a product pitched for high-end supercomputing, and IBM’s hoping to licence the design out to other companies — but within the next five to ten years, it’s entirely possible we could all be flinging bits around at speeds that are all but unimaginable right now.


AMD’s Fusion of speed and budget processing

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You may not care — or even know — what make of processor you’ve got inside your computer. The chances are reasonably high it’s an Intel part; depending on whose figures you read, somewhere around eighty percent of all processors sold are Intel processors. Still, that leaves twenty percent of the market running something else, and in most cases, that’s a processor from AMD, or Advanced Micro Devices, if you wish to be formal.

AMD’s latest processor foray couldn’t be more different to the recently announced (and swiftly withdrawn) Intel “Sandy Bridge” processors. Sandy Bridge is (first and foremost) pitching at the high-end, high-specification market with some very nice processors if you’ve got the money. At the time of writing, however, Intel was scrambling to correct a problem with the accompanying chipset to Sandy Bridge, as the chipset (codenamed “Cougar Bridge”) had potential flaws in how it talked to SATA devices (hard disk drives and optical drives such as DVD or Blu-Ray) that could cause problems over time. If you bought one of the first Sandy Bridge PCs or laptops, you may well have issues, but at this stage it’s unclear if every system will have problems. For the moment, though, Sandy Bridge is off the market.

In any case, AMD’s solution to go head to head with high performance Sandy Bridge, is, simply put, not to do so at all. Instead, AMD’s latest “Fusion” processors come with a sparkly new marketing term and an initial pitch to the entry-level, long battery life, thin and light market. AMD refers to the Fusion processors not as CPUs (Central Processing Units) but as APUs (Acccelerated Processing Units), because they combine a CPU and reasonably high end graphics processor on the same chip. Intel does do that type of arrangement, but to date the integrated graphics that Intel’s offered hasn’t been particularly exciting stuff. AMD’s Fusion APUs, put up against the Atom processors that Intel supplies for many Netbooks make for interesting comparison, with AMD claiming eleven times the graphics performance, although things get murkier if you’re comparing some Core i3/i5 notebook systems to Fusion.

There will be a high-end version of Fusion, codenamed “Llano” available later in the year, but for now, the focus is on slim systems, netbook competitors and entry level priced systems. AMD has taken Intel on over the years in the value for money space, and it’s a fight that ultimately benefits us, the consumers, even if you don’t buy a Fusion PC. Competition breeds competitive pricing, and who doesn’t want faster and cheaper computing?


Intel’s New Cores Offer Impressive Performance

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Roughly every twelve months, Intel hauls out its latest batch of ever-so-slightly-faster processors to market and tries to whip up a frenzy based around processors that are quicker than last year’s components. Intel’s latest range of processors for desktops and notebooks is a little bit different, if only because the claims around them are a little bit more enthusiastic than in previous years.

I’ve been to more than my fair share of Intel processor launches. Here’s how the script usually goes. Various videos will play touting the new chips, with reference to whatever new features Intel’s stacked into a processor this year. Inevitably, a visiting US VIP will be trotted out to say something nice — this year it was the excellent and exuberant Schmuel “Mooly” Eden, Intel’s vice president and general manager of the PC Client Group — and a few canned demos will be run, showing (typically), increases in the 5-15% range. Nice perforumance to have, but usually not enough to get you out of your seat and replacing all your valuable PC gear automatically. It’s hard to get all that excited about gains that barely crack double digits.

The second generation of Intel’s  core processors (codenamed “Sandy Bridge”) offer a bit more than 15%, according to Intel’s figures, and backed up by a number of independent reviews lately. Intel’s figures suggest that a top of the line Core i7-2820QM Sandy Bridge processor will outpace the previous top of the line i7-840QM processor in Excel calculations by a whopping 69%. Slideshow creation between the two processors was claimed by Intel at 62% faster. Bear in mind, that’s with the top line processors of each generation, but the gains (according to Intel’s figures) get better if you’ve got older gear. According to Eden’s speech, a three year old PC will get outpaced by Sandy Bridge by an incredible 831%. Three years is usually the lifespan of a business machine for depreciation reasons, but even if you’re holding on to older gear, the concept of being able to crunch your numbers more than eight times faster has definite appeal.

Greater speed isn’t Sandy Bridge’s only party piece, though. Theft detection measures within the processor allow systems to be remotely locked down or even wiped depending on preference, the inbuilt graphics processor (typically one of Intel’s weak points versus discrete graphics options) has been ramped up to the point where (so Intel claims) it outperforms more than 40% of the discrete solutions on the market. Intel’s Turbo Boost technology, which (in effect) selectively overclocks the cores of a given processor when needed to ensure optimal performance and battery life has been refined, and finally (and perhaps most controversially), there’s also Intel Insider, a DRM technology that allows movie studios to check the presence of a Sandy Bridge processor before streaming high definition movies to it. It’s a mooted anti-theft measure, although even Eden had to admit that “Intel’s never going to stop movie piracy.”

As always, you can expect older systems still in the retail channel to get price drops as the new Sandy Bridge based systems come through into the marketplace over the next couple of months. In previous years, these systems have typically been bargains, because the 5-10% slower processing power has been made up for in the purchase price. When you’re talking gains over over fifty percent, however, that value equation shifts substantially. It may just be worthwhile pitching in a few extra dollars for a substantially faster system.


What’s New In Consumer Technology for 2011

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January brings with it the start of a new year, and along with it the promise of all kinds of new technological gadgetry. This isn’t just a case of the year rolling over, either; January is also when the largest consumer technology trade show, CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) takes place in Las Vegas. It’s a chance for the heavyweights of the consumer technology trade to show off their latest and greatest wares, as well as the products that we should see on store shelves over the next couple of years. It’s a mixture of what you might think of as “pure” technology products, as well as more consumer-centric fare. As an example, last year’s CES was dominated by 3D Televisions, and they were still a presence this year, although with more focus on a glasses-free experience. TVs had to sit side by side with some major technology announcements, however. While Apple largely had the tablet computing field to itself in 2010, that’s not going to be the case in 2011, with new and rather exciting tablets on the table from LG, Dell, Lenovo, Asus, Motorola and RIM all on show. Some feature slide-out keyboards for those still not sold on the whole touchscreen motif, and many use NVIDIA’s powerful dual-core Tegra 2 chipset. One of the factors that has been a problem for Android-based systems recently has been the differing hardware that lies underneath each different Android phone. If the market consolidates around Tegra 2, those problems may become a thing of the past. Microsoft talked up its successes in 2010, particular surrounding the Kinect technology, as well as launching a revision of its business centric Surface technology, dubbed Surface 2. If the Tablet is the hot new thing, then the Surface is, in essence, the hot new thing on growth steroids. The original was, quite literally, a table, but one that happened to be touch sensitive. Costing over $20,000 each, these were serious promotional machines for hotel lobbies and the like. The new Surface 2 cuts the cost considerably (although Australian Surface buyers had a significant cost premium to pay, and it’ll be interesting to see if that premium continues with the second generation Surface), adds a tough gorilla glass exterior and a fascinating technology that turns each pixel on the display into a tiny sensing camera. Previous generation surface relied on specially designed tags that the Surface could “read”. The new Surface 2 may be able to do without them altogether.

Intel also used CES to launch its “Sandy Bridge” line of 2nd generation Core i7, Core i5 and Core i3 processors. As you’d expect, Intel’s busy talking up the improved processing speed of the new CPUs, and frankly, I’d be stunned if they promoted anything else. CES also sees its share of concept products, product pitches and things that are just plain weird. I’d have to say that the strangest I’ve heard of on the CES floor would have to have come from graphics chip giant NVIDIA. Not content with powering many of the best tablet computers on the show floor, somebody at NVIDIA got the bright idea of combining computing and beer, in the form of the Kegputer. The recipe’s pretty simple; a high end Sandy Bridge Intel Chip, Two NVIDA GTX 580s for graphics processing”¦ inside a working beer keg. I figured somebody was pulling my leg when they mentioned it, until I found video of it online. Who wouldn’t want one of these?


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