Chips and bits
- 11 March, 2009 11:42
Size matters and so does performance. The ongoing goal to make devices smaller and more efficient to keep ahead of the pack has been ringing true since the evolution of the bulky PC to the Eee PC, and from the stereo to the iPod. It’s a small world after all and it’s set to get smaller as new concepts and devices roll through the production stages. But as the economic doom settles in, what component technologies will shine through?
In the components space, Intel has been putting its efforts on 32nm chip and will invest close to $7 billion over the next couple of years on the technology, which will be made available by the end of the year. It promises increased performance, power flexibility and integrated graphics inside the processor.
On the server side, AMD is stepping up to the plate with its six-core 45nm Opteron processor, codenamed Istanbul, which is set to launch later this year. It has also released tri- and quad-core versions of its desktop chip, Phenom II.
According to Gartner principal microprocessor analyst, Christian Heidarson, AMD’s Phenom II product has helped it close some of the marketshare gap with Intel.
“We have seen a big jump from AMD [in technology], because they’ve been finally able to move to 45nm. With Barcelona in 2007, they had the native quad-core solution, but the problem was that because it was done in 65nm, they didn’t have the real estate to put four cores and enough cache to really take advantage of those four cores,” he said.
“Phenom II is almost exactly the same as Phenom I – they’ve had very minor architecture improvements – but we’re seeing very good performance improvements and it’s because they’re moving to 45nm that they can add more cache. By having more cache, they have more data on the processor and through having more on the chip, they’re able to make use of the fact they’ve got this native quad-core architecture.”
Heidarson said AMD had good offerings at certain price points, but Intel already had the leading-edge market in its palm. “2009 will be more competitive, because AMD has closed the gap significantly, but they’re still far away from any kind of leadership,” he claimed.
“Intel will be coming out with its Westmere architecture at the end of this year. They’ll be in production, but we probably won’t see systems with them until early 2010.
“But in 2008... Intel managed to achieve such a lead in desktop and processor technology. They were almost able to skip a generation in terms of improving the experience for desktop users.” Despite the new functionality both vendors are providing with chip technology, Heidarson warned customer take-up would be hindered by the global economic downturn.
“Everything at the moment is being overshadowed by the market conditions,” he said.
Small and light
One area of the PC market seeing growth in the past year has been low-cost netbook, or mini-laptop devices. The introduction of 32nm chip technology is expected to pave the way for customers to access even thinner and lighter form factors.
“In today’s market, the direction and growth lies in low cost and that’s where the market is going. We have no idea how this economic downturn translates into PC sales,” Heidarson said. “There’s huge uncertainty in the market, and there’s only one area where there’s certainty and that’s in mininotebooks. There’s huge interest, but it’s a small part of the market.”
Intel area sales manager, Thomas Tapsas, was also seeing a trend towards smaller and lighter devices. He pointed out the vendor’s lower-end Atom processor, which is designed for lower-end products such as netbooks, had taken off in the deskop and mobile markets.
Tapsas also said Intel was experiencing good traction with its new quad-core Core i7 (based on Nehalem) chip, which offered higher performance in a smaller package.
“The move to 45nm manufacturing last year for Core i7 enabled us to deliver a lot more power on a processor on a smaller footprint, with a whole lot more performance and less power utilisation,” he said.
Core i7, which incorporates DDR3 support, offered a lot more performance capability than its predecessor, Tapsas said.
“Core i7 was a lot more expensive than existing platforms, but it offered additional performance in key areas depending on content creation or gaming,” he said.
“It’s a premium system and price point. It’s not a low-end product and it’s not an easy sell. Given the price point it’s at and the state of the market, the uptake has been very good for Core i7.” Earlier this year, AMD hit back with its Yukon platform, which plays into what the vendor dubs the ‘ultrathin’ space between ultraportable machines and the Intel dominant netbook category.
The Yukon platform will be integrated with ATI graphics and is based on an Athlon or Sempron CPU.
“It may not necessarily be cheaper than a lowend notebook, because it’s a lot more powerful,” AMD technical manager, Garrath Johnson, said. “Feature-wise, it’s a little higher, but it will be very small, light and has a good battery life, which is a key thing.”
In the wider corporate PC and server space, multicore CPUs are driving innovation and performance. MSI sales and marketing manager, Harlem Chiang, said enhanced multi-core processors would become a major trend this year.
“We now have quad-core and next year we’re going to see eight cores. As far as the frequency goes, it will pretty much be at the same level, but there will be more cores and more cache in the same CPU,” Chiang said.
Overclocking has also been embraced by many vendors like MSI, Gigabyte and Asus, as a way to gain extra performance from CPUs.
“This means that you get extra performance, without paying the premium for it. The pricing difference between the 2GHz and 2.4GHz might be about 40 per cent,” Chiang said.
MSI recently introduced an overclocking dial, which gives users the ability to increase the speed of the CPU.
“Users always want to get the best performance without doing much work,” Chiang said.
Many have argued the differences separating DDR2 and DDR3 are minor, except for its higher speed capacity and price. The difference in voltage between DDR2 and DDR3 is only .3, but it still manages to have an impact on the consumption of electricity and cooling requirements. The slightest performance difference would most likely be of interest to gaming enthusiasts.
AMD’s Johnson said its latest Phenom II technology incorporates both DDR2 and DDR3 controller capabilities to provide customers the option of choosing between whether they want to use existing memory, or purchase new modules.
“At this point in time, DDR3 is probably a bit too expensive. I know our Phenom II going from DDR2 to DDR3 is only in the order of a two to three per cent performance up lift,” he said. “Once it comes down to a similar price, then people will just automatically step up to it.”
Even though DDR3 has been available for some time, Kingston country manager, Vaughan Nankivell, expected the market to finally leap from DDR2 to DDR3 this year.
“DDR3 will become much more mainstream and will be a demand platform going forward,” he said.
“Most people say that as you go from one platform technology to another, it’s going to get faster. DDR3 initially came into the market at 800MHz with a top end of 1.6GHz, perhaps the biggest advantage of that is the reduction of energy consumption.”
For Gigabyte Asia sales division manager, Tim Handley, the introduction of two-ounce copper on the motherboard layer provides enough strength to add on cooling devices without damaging the motherboard, further improving energy efficiency.
“Heat is the enemy. The physical material components are made to deteriorate with heat and the less heat you have, the longer lasting equipment you’ll have,” he said. “This also provides a more solid platform, it just feels stronger. It comes down to better quality.”
The whitebox market
The biggest advantage system builders continue to have over branded vendors is the ability to custom make a machine, fitted with customer needs.
Despite the loss of several key players in the assembly market, such as Optima and Ipex, there has been an increase in the number of whitebox servers, which are typically built from domestically sourced components such as motherboards, RAM and cases, IDC enterprise server and workstations analyst, Matthew Oostveen, said.
“There’s lots of reasons for this. Where we’re seeing the growth happening is at a very granular level in the market place, with companies that have up to 10 seats,” he said.
Oostveen said the majority of these customers would have local relationships with system builders and were looking for customised services and the right price.
“These small stores are stocked with quite intelligent engineers and system builders internally who are able to custom make a machine that suits the requirement of the customer,” he said. “They’re able to tune their servers to the applications being run.
“It makes it very hard for a larger corporate to actually engage at this very granular level in the marketplace. They just don’t have the depth, either directly or through their channel partners, to be able to contact this 1-10 space and the majority of Australian companies are classified within this area. So it’s no surprise we’ve seen this whitebox market so strong.”
However, system builders and PC resellers will need to work doubly hard on presenting the advantages of new technologies. Intel’s Tapsas said companies that are innovative, have the latest technology and can differentiate using the form factors will continue to be successful. He claimed there were still plenty of opportunities in the market for system builders involving specialist segments such as content creation and digital photography.
“There’s a huge opportunity to provide systems that can address those performance requirements,” he said. “In our business, it’s important to have reasons for people to buy. You can’t keep offering the same kind of products quarter in, quarter out.” Pioneer Computers manager, Jeff Li, said providing customised machines was one way system builders could stand out from multinational organisations.
“You can make a difference with the latest technology and customised features,” he said. “You can still put everything together and make it work with the specs customers really like and value.” Resellers and system builders should also articulate reasons why customers needed to adopt new technology, industry representatives advised.
“I’m sure you’ll be able to weather the storm better than your competitors that aren’t able to have that same level of sophisticated conversation,” IDC’s Oostveen said.
“The other thing that’s going to be propelling the market is the uptake of multi-core processors, and ever growing demand for processing power.” Kingston’s Nankivell said there had been quite an uptake in the enthusiast market.
“People may not be into the high-performance like gamers, but they’re looking for more than what you just get stock standard in a reference platform. That trend is also being mirrored by the build to order market, for example Dell and HP where you can actually choose and isolate the components that you want and be able to upscale it from there,” he said.
Nankivell said system builders had an advantage because of their specialist knowledge.
“They understand technology right down to a board and chipset level,” he said. “Tailor-made computing is the advantage these guys have. They’re technically more capable, know how to put systems together, support and service them.”