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CES Summary Part 3: The Processor Horse Race

January 12th, 2011 · 2 Comments

All three major players in the processing world had huge announcement during CES this year. All were the results of multi-year efforts, and reveal their visions of the future.

ARM

Although ARM isn’t a household name, its designs are the brains behind Apple’s iOS devices, along with the low power processors used in Android devices. They have had a stellar run, and scored a big win when Steve Ballmer announced that the next major release of Windows will be able to run on ARM architecture. That’s huge. Imagine a netbook running full scale Windows with the battery life of an iPad. Microsoft would clearly need to rethink their user interface to move into tablets, but this could be seen as a good first step to make this happen. The clear losers are Intel and AMD which have both made multi-billion dollar bets on different type of technology.

Intel

If ARM is the king of power sipping microprocessors use on tablets and phones, then Intel is the clear king of PCs. Currently the flagship processor of the PC world and the Mac world, Intel’s new Sandy Bridge processors are designed to keep it in front of the heavy duty processing world.

The new processor focuses on 4 multimedia capabilities; Video transcoding, GPU integration, copyright compliance, and WiDi.

Video Transcoding: If you have ever taken a home movie and tried to change its format from avi to mpeg, you suddenly understand why Intel thought it was necessary to build transcoding into the chip. It currently takes about an hour to convert a 2 hour video, which Sandy Bridge should be able to complete in about 15 minutes. That’s a huge improvement, which A/V folks should really love.

GPU Integration: Currently gamers and videophiles are forced to get a separate GPU from either ATI or Nvidia to process the graphics on their machines. Intel effectively declared war on both with their announcement of having a full scale GPU built onto their chips now. This should save both power consumption and money for PC buyers.

Copyright Compliance: Hollywood studios have always been reluctant to release PC versions of their movies out of fear for fraud. As a result, studios like Warner Brothers don’t release HD versions of their movies for PC playback (although piraters get around this by simply transcoding Blu-ray). With the new transcoding capabilities on the chip, studios must have seen the writing on the wall and have now given full permission for distribution of their movies thanks to some new hardware based copyright protections. Movie Studios have officially entered the new millennium.

Last, Intel showed off their new WiDi platform. Similar to Apple’s AirPlay, WiDi allows a machine to stream an HD video stream to a connected device like a TV without wires. This capability will only get interesting if the TV manufacturers will get on board.

Like Microsoft, Intel is betting long and hard on the success of PCs in general. Intel didn’t talk much of their low-power Atom processors, which are terrible, nor any plans for getting into the tablet game. I think of Sandy Bridge as a big bet that consumers will continue to look for super beefy processors to run their heavy duty PCs.

AMD:

Not to be left out, AMD released their new Fusion APU platform. AMD has owned the GPU heavyweight ATI for a while now, and has finally integrated their CPUs with the ATI GPUs to build a single chip that handles both processing and graphics which they call the APU (not that different from Sandy Bridge actually). From the demos I saw, the GPU capabilities from Fusion were superior to Sandy Bridge, while the processing capabilities were pretty far behind.

So who wins?

My guess is that gamers will like the Fusion APU platform, while A/V folks along with business users will congregate around the Intel Sandy Bridge platform. Consumers will continue to by whatever dated drivel Apple throws at them (currently a mix of ARM and Intel). I still can’t believe folks are buying the Macbook AIR with its 4 year old Intel Core Duo processors!

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