New Chips From AMD, Intel, and Qualcomm Make PCs Exciting Again
Personal computers have not elicited many thrills of late. They’ve gotten cheaper, sure, and a little faster. But despite some wild promises the gap between the actual and the possible has remained expansive. This week, it narrowed significantly.
PCs that work on smartphone parts. Devices that run all day, but for real this time. A 32-core hellbeast processor. The first GPU shrunk down to a 7nm process. Always-connected 5G laptops. And while not a PC, the ASUS ROG put vapor cooling in gaming-focused smartphone. (Vapor cooling. In a smartphone.) This was the bounty of Computex, the Taiwan trade show that serves as the cradle of innovation for what goes inside your gear.
Not all of these innovations will wind up in consumer-facing devices, at least not for a while. Not all of them are strictly necessary for the majority of the computer-using masses. But if you’ve grown tired of waiting for the future to become the present, this week, the industry pressed the fast-forward button.
Let’s start with the near-term, and work outward from there. Qualcomm, for years the king of (non-iPhone) mobile processors, set up shop in Windows PCs last December, pushing the convergence Google has already pushed heavily in its Chromebook line. The premise: all the productivity of a laptop, with the battery life and connectivity of a smartphone.
That first effort used a Snapdragon 835 chip, the same you’ll find top-tier smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S8. Its successor, the Snapdragon 850, is strictly for laptops. You still won’t want to edit video on a so-called Always Connected PC, and it’s not going to do you any favors playing PUGB. But it’s a new enough platform that the gains between each generation are potentially transformative, rather than iterative. The Snapdragon 850 promises a 30 percent systemwide performance jump over the 835, triple the AI performance, and up to 25 hours of continuous-use battery life.
Keep your grains of salt handy, especially over battery life claims, which are notoriously juiced industry-wide. But by optimizing for Windows 10 specifically, the 850 potentially gives PC makers the key to a viable everything machine, feather-light laptops that work anywhere, any time, for as long as you need it to. And they’re coming this year.
“It’s a big deal. The future of all notebooks is going to be like this,” says Patrick Moorhead, CEO of Moor Insights & Strategy. “They’re always going to be connected, and you’re truly going to be able to use them the entire day, regardless of what you’re doing, without having to bring a power cord with you.”
If connectivity and efficiency don’t rev your engine, fear not: AMD has you covered. Its Threadripper CPU line may sound like it was named after a dainty Victorian serial killer, but its next-generation release includes a variant that packs in 32 cores and 64 threads. For the uninitiated: That is very, very many cores and threads. Contextually, Intel made a huge splash last May—with a chipset that had half as many.
“Particularly in workloads like video editing, doubling the amount of cores is almost linear. What would have taken you a half an hour to edit or recode a 4K or 8K video now takes 15 minutes,” says Moorhead. “Workstations, creative-type applications. Any type of rendering is where you’ll see the real-world benefits. Wherever you see the hourglass today.”
In fact, think of Threadripper 2 the way you might a tricked-out auto-show reveal, there more to demonstrate what’s possible than for you to actually buy. (To be clear, you can buy it, sometime in the next few months, for a yet-unspecified price.) But it’s got plenty of appeal, even on possibility alone.
“In the past, I’ve built my own PCs from various components. I would seek out the best processor, the best GPU I could get. A 32-core PC processor sounds like really cool stuff to me,” says Shane Rau, who leads semiconductor research at IDC. Rau cautions that his enthusiasm isn’t an endorsement, especially given that Threadripper 2’s actual performance remains to be seen.
Still, it’s progress! Real, near-term progress. And that’s before you even get to what’s coming a little further out on the horizon.
Far and Away
The most directly impactful development out of Computex this year may ultimately come from Intel. It had chip announcements both whimsical—the limited edition Core i7-8086K is Intel’s fastest yet, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the x86 chip architecture that redefined personal computing—and aggressive, teasing a CPU with 28 cores. But look, instead, at Intel’s purported display breakthrough, which claims to halve the amount of battery used by a laptop screen.
“Being able to tackle what is one of the big power consumption aspects on your average laptop or mobile device, the technology pieces that Intel’s put into doing some very dramatic power reduction in display is I think going to have the biggest near-term impact,” says Eric Hanselman, chief analyst at 451 Research.
Intel Low Power Display Technology is classic trade show sizzle, promise of performance without much detail to back it up. It comes in the form of a 1-watt display, manufactured in partnership with Sharp and Innolux, and Intel pegs the overall battery life gains at up to eight hours. That’s about as much information as you’ll get for now; an Intel spokesperson described it as more of a prototype than a ready product. But let that temper your expectations, not deplete them. Your screen is a battery-sucking vampire. How wonderful that someone’s even attempting to fashion such a sharp stake.
(Let it be noted here that Intel also showed off a dual-display, clamshell computer this week, in case you’re into that sort of thing. It gets demoted to a parenthetical because of how many manufacturers have tried and spectacularly failed to make that work over the last five or six years. But godspeed!)
And then there’s arguably the real star of the show, an AMD prototype of the first-ever GPU built on a 7nm process. Unlike some of the other blockbuster announcements out of Taipei this week, this one won’t make its way to your computer any time soon. It’ll find a home in data centers, helping AI and machine learning compute at blistering speeds, using a lot less energy to do so.
That means the gains won’t be as flashy or as visible as those from other corners. It’s still a big honking deal. “The jump from 12nm to 7nm is going to be significant,” says Hanselman. “7nm means that they ought to be able to save on significant power savings in terms of compute capacity. It’s a big potential step.”
It’s big, too, that AMD is the the company that took it. After years of lagging behind, it’s now throwing down some gauntlets of its own.
“We’re back to this familiar sense of competition,” says IDC’s Rau. “These companies are producing better and faster, more cost-competitive products that I think bode well for the PC.”
And perhaps more importantly, for those who buy them, whether they need an all-day, always connected device or a hair-singeing powerhouse. It’s too early to know what they next generation of PCs will look like, or how they’ll incorporate all these new toys. But at least on the inside, they’re already brimming with potential.