More power to the PC

13 Jan 2011

As 1m PCs continue to be sold daily, Intel says its chips, including its 2nd Generation Core Processor, will drive $125bn into the PC industry’s coffers.

As I squeezed past the throngs of people at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week – where annually most of the new technology to dominate the year ahead is unveiled – I couldn’t help but smile at the irony.

There have been many obituaries written, lamenting the death of the personal computer as new devices like the iPad or Android smartphones sell by the truck load. The reality, however, is the PC is stronger than ever.

PC isn’t dead yet

This is good news for chip giant Intel – which employs around 4,000 people in Ireland – and its recent $11bn quarter attests to the rude health of the PC industry. At the CES, Intel CEO Paul Otellini said people still prefer having a sturdy PC and if anything they want more flavours of PCs, be they all-in-one devices, netbooks and – yes – tablet computers.

While Intel faces competition primarily in the mobile processor business from rising player ARM, the company is confident it can stave off competition and is planning to strengthen its grip on emerging markets like home energy technology and automotives.

The new shape of computing also means steady demand for Intel’s low-power Atom processor and at the CES devices like the Samsung PC-7 netbook/tablet combo and the HP Slate tablet computer were seen in action.

“In terms of future technologies showing up in volume in the marketplace, the numbers are unprecedented. You are going to see Intel start to build ecosystems around new devices – TVs, cars, tablets netbooks, home energy and digital signage,” Otellini explained.

He said more than 1m PCs are sold every day and that some 30m units of netbooks shipped last year.

“There are over 100 new Atom-based netbooks and tablets in design right now and these will whip into the marketplace during the first half of this year.

“We are working with Google to catalyse the smart TV category, bring out set-top boxes to bring the internet to the big screen in everyone’s living room. We are also working with Google on the Chrome OS, as well as new ecosystems with automotive manufacturers.

“The integration of internet-based connectivity and intelligence will be critical to the cars of the future,” Otellini said.

He said that from Intel’s viewpoint, the PC is going from strength to strength.

Intel’s Sandy Bridge microprocessor

“To explain how dynamic PCs are becoming, how much more innovative they are and how much more affordable they are, our 2nd Generation Intel core microprocessor, code-named Sandy Bridge, is the biggest launch of the year for us.”

He said that the chip represents a powerful leap forward for Intel insofar as the 2nd Generation processor is an entire system on a chip that makes the need for discrete graphic cards redundant in future PCs as the chip can handle this and much more.

New features of the ‘Sandy Bridge’ processor include Intel Insider technology for secure content streaming, Intel Quick Sync Video and a new version of Intel’s Wireless Display (Wi-Di) technology, which enables smooth and swift transfer of content from PC to TV.

“This is the world’s most advanced 32nm chip technology,” Otellini explained. “It is the first 32nm graphics and media chip in the industry. It can do the things discrete media can’t do, it can also do fast transcoding.”

The 2nd Generation Intel Core processor, Otellini said, features deep integration with Windows 7 and the future Windows 8 operating system. He said Intel is working on 20 new processors and has more than 500 new design wins for laptops and desktops.

“To give you a scale, in 2011 alone Sandy Bridge will represent one-third of Intel’s corporate revenues. In the year ahead, Intel will generate $125bn for the PC industry,” Otellini said.

New movies to TV upon release

One breakthrough already possible as a result of the new processor is the ability for Hollywood filmmakers to deliver new movies to the home TV as soon as they are released in the cinema.

“It’s about the visual experience,” Otellini beamed as he outlined how Intel Insider provides the deep integration of security and content that will allow the movie industry deliver premium HD content in 1,080p format directly via the internet to PCs and then onto the TV using Wi-Di.”

“The new 2nd Generation Intel Core processors represent the biggest advance in computing performance and capabilities over any other previous generation,” said Mooly Eden, vice-president and general manager of Intel’s PC Client Group.

“The built-in visual capabilities enabled by these new processors are stunning. This, combined with improved adaptive performance, will revolutionise the PC experience in a way that is obvious for every user to see and appreciate – visibly smarter performance,” Eden said.

Consumers no longer view PCs as luxuries but necessities, he explained. “While the overall market is growing, the major driver is the consumer. The consumer percentage of the total PC pie growing from 29pc in 2000 to 66pc today, that’s phenomenal growth.”

Eden said that the speeds enabled by the new generation of Intel processors are staggering.

“It is 831pc faster for Excel calculations and 333pc faster for PowerPoint slideshows.”

Some 247bn emails are being sent daily, out of which eight out of 10 are spam, he said.

“So there are only 50bn emails that people actually read.”

Eden also pointed out that 2.5bn photos are uploaded on Facebook every month while YouTube is recording 2bn videos uploadings a day.

“It is about user experience, but you need performance underneath it, performance to deliver great user experience, without being a geek or hacker, but performance to delivery experience. People like to create, they like to be innovative; the only problem is it has been very complicated.

“Sandy Bridge is revolutionary – it is the biggest step change in Intel since I joined and I believe it will be a cornerstone of the computer revolution. It integrates CPU, media and graphics onto one chip.”

Eden said that a single ‘Sandy Bridge’ processor has 1.16bn transistors and is 69pc faster than the previous generation. He said that in the near future, PCs will be delivering users console-like quality in terms of video gaming and demonstrated clever physical hand controllers that act as an extension of the human body.

“Four years ago Paul (Otellini), predicted that processors would be 10 times faster by the end of 2010. Well, we have made them 25 times faster.”

Avatar technology

Eden demonstrated real-time avatar technology that mimics human expression and predicted that in the not-so-distant future these avatars will feature in social networking. “Very soon you will not know if you are in real world or the virtual world, this technology is becoming so realistic.”

Returning to the subject of Hollywood, Eden said that major firms have not been averse to the idea of delivering new box office material directly to the home TV, they just needed to overcome piracy concerns and Sandy Bridge has done that.

“Consumers would like to watch new titles as soon as they are released. The studios are interested, too, but until now they didn’t feel the link was secure enough to stream information.

“We are working with Warner, Fox, Hungama, and many more are coming on board to enable great content to be consumed early to release,” Eden said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years