Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Processor Leaps to Drive Tech Innovations in 2015

A7 Circuit Image
Apple's A7 Circuit Image
Processors, both mobile and desktop, typically evolve in regular cycles with bumps in performance, power management = battery life, integrated components, like a GPU, that reduce the number of chips required and more.  But they rarely leap.  Some of those leaps are coming soon though, and have a direct and measurable impact on users and the mobile tech that they love, from smartphones and tablets to notebooks and wearables.  And other cool tech you use in your home, like Internet TV, gaming and home automation.

This article connects the dots from the most fundamental tech of processors to some of these tech innovations that we will see make a major difference in 2015 in devices that will begin shipping this holiday season.

Mobile Processor Leap

A7 Features Slide from Sept 2013
A7 Features Slide from Sept 2013
When Apple announced the first 64-bit mobile processor ever, the Apple A7 processor, nearly a year ago on September 10, it took everyone by surprise.  This latest update of Apple's A series processors starting shipping 10 days after it's announcement, in the iPhone 5s, and soon after in the iPad Air and newest iPad Mini.

Apple's secrecy is famous and a key element of their strategy, and so the rumor mill is fierce.  This is one big inside baseball game that is endlessly entertaining, generates a butt load of free marketing for Apple (by design), and keeps a ton of press and analysts employed.  With the frantic feeding frenzy that is created by this brilliant marketing strategy, they usually uncover all the big stuff.  But everyone missed this one…..  BIG time.  Apple kept this huge leap a secret.

Although 64-bit mobile processors was inevitable, no one guessed it would happen this soon.  And it set off panic in competitors because their roadmap for 64-bit was no where near Apple's. 

Qualcomm's former chief marketing officer at the time, tried to play it off as no big deal, claiming that 64-bit had zero benefit for customers.  And that was true at the time, and mostly still is.  But it gave Apple and iOS app developers a significant head start.

Another Qualcomm employee admitted and quoted in an AppleInsider article that:
"Apple kicked everybody in the balls with this," the Qualcomm employee said. "It's being downplayed, but it set off panic in the industry."

Today, nearly 1 year later, there still is no competing alternative.  An even more significant fact, that demonstrates just how far ahead Apple was on this one and how big a deal it really is, inside baseball.

nVidia 64-bit Processor Features
nVidia 64-bit Processor Features
Finally, however, there will soon be more 64-bit mobile processors to compete with the A7, and next month the newest A8 or A7X.  Last week Nvidia detailed the new "Denver" variant of its Tegra K1 mobile processor.  Although there is no word on which device will be the first to ship with the new processor, the first 64-bit version of Android is currently in testing and is slated for release this fall.


Drive What ?

While 64-bit mobile processors has not driven major innovations in mobile tech, it will soon.  As everyone wisely watching tech closely, already knows and expects.

Tablet vs PC Shipments
Tablet vs PC Shipments
Tablets are inevitably moving closer to notebook powers and uses.  They've already taken a giant bite out of the PC market share.  Although that's mostly hurt Windows PCs, not Macs.  64-bit tech in tablets drives that even more for many reasons, including more processing power and more memory, so that tablets can soon perform as well as notebooks.  And eventually fuel the convergence of tablet and notebook tech.

This convergence trend can already be seen clearly in Microsoft's Surface Pro and other Windows notebooks.  Although because of Windows lousy tablet UX design and the lack of apps with a native tablet UX, they still pretty much suck.  Eventually Microsoft will get a clue and make it right.  But it might be too late by then, because consumers will have moved on to Apple and Android tablets, as many have already done in ginormous numbers.

There are also rumors of Apple testing a touch screen MacBook running on an A8 processor.  Rumors of them testing ARM processors in Macs with a large-format Magic Trackpad.  iOS was based on Mac OS X, and the 2 OSes have become more and more integrated and sharing more services and features, especially with iOS 8 and Mac OS X Yosemite, to be released this fall.

Another thing that better processors for tablets and smartphones drives, is better and faster and smaller and cheaper processors for other devices like wearables and Internet TV.  Older generation mobile processor tech that was used in the leading tablets and smartphones, moves down to these other devices making them better and capable of doing more.


PC Processor Leap

Intel's 14-nanometer Broadwell package
Intel's 14-nanometer Broadwell package
Intel's processor roadmap is well known, so we've been anticipating it's next-generation 14-nanometer Broadwell processors for some time now.  Intel’s tick-tock methodology has made it quite easy to keep on top of it's processor development roadmap.  Although we don't get feature details until the new processor approaches release.  Last week Intel released new details on Broadwell.  Broadwell devices will start to ship as earlier as this fall.

The current generation Haswell processors made some impressive leaps in power management and caused a huge leap in battery life in notebooks.  Broadwell's 14-nanometer (nm) manufacturing process and it's new microarchitecture that takes full advantage of 14nm, is another processor leap driving up performance, density and battery life, and driving down cost, power requirements and size.


Driving What ?

While Haswell was a great evolutionary step, Broadwell is more of a leap.  It will drive innovations in notebooks and two-in-one tablet/computer hybrids like the Microsoft Surface.  Innovations such as noticeably thinner devices, that will start to compete with the size and battery life of today's tablets.  Further pushing towards the convergence of tablet and notebook tech.

"The combination of the new microarchitecture and manufacturing process will usher in a wave of innovation in new form factors, experiences and systems that are thinner and run silent and cool."

Intel's Processor Journey
Intel's Processor Journey
Anantech's article has a good and quick preview of Broadwell's features and an easy to read diagram of Intel's processor journey over the last few years.  


Good for All of Us

Although this has been Intel's plan for some years, the threat from ARM processors and mobile devices is driving a high level of processor innovation for the first time in a long time.  And this will in turn drive leaps in the tech that we all buy and use more and more every month.


Competition is a very good thing….

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