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Week in Tech: The PC Is Dead, Long Live The PC

100 million microprocessors...

Featured post My desk drawer, yesterday

You know the one about the New Scientist editor and his philosophy for the magazine, right? Science is interesting and if you don’t agree you can bugger off? It comes second hand via the shy, retiring figure that is Richard Dawkins and, for all I know, it’s probably apocryphal. But it’s at least in broadly the same ballpark as my feelings about the computer industry. It’s just had such a huge impact on the way we live. And none so much as the PC, even if the image of the poor old thing being devoured alive by a swarm of vicious mobile devices gets repeated so often, nobody really bothers to check if it’s true. And yes, we’ve been here before, kinda.

But in recent weeks it’s all become more baffling than ever. Try this for size: Record revenues for good old Intel, AMD laying off staff while another bit of what used to be AMD is paid $1.5 billion to take away what’s left of IBM’s chip production facility – deep breath – tablet sales tanking, PC sales taking up the slack, an Apple iPad chip with more transistors than an eight-core Intel PC processor, graphics chip vendors stuck on 28nm while Apple pinches all the 20nm production capacity…I’m not sure what to make of all, especially in terms of, ya know, simply playing games on PCs. But one thing is for sure, it’s interesting. And if you don’t agree…The Intel in fine fettle versus AMD lurching from one disaster to another thing is a familiar refrain, I suppose. But for the record, Chipzilla recently shifted 100 million microprocessors in a single quarter (ie three-month period) for the very first time.

The result was record revenues for Intel (though not, as far as I can tell record profits, so the modern-day Gordon Gekkos that own all the shares no doubt remain unsatisfied). The good news, for what it’s worth, included a nine per cent upswing in client PC chip sales (in other words, boxes for gamers and wage slaves alike, not server or embedded processors), year-on-year.

As for AMD, it’s got a new CEO to go along with a new round of job lay-offs and the ever-present sense of imminent demise. Meanwhile, the company that used to be the bit of AMD that actually made chips, Global Foundries, has just acquired what’s left of IBM’s computer chip production facilities.

The weird bit here is that IBM actually paid Global Foundries $1.5 billion to take the bloody stuff off its hands. That’s how hard chip production has got these days. A company like IBM had fell behind so badly it had to pay billions to extract itself from the game.

More powerful than a PC? Nope, but that A8X chip is still impressive

Not that the fact manufacturers are rapidly approaching the physical limits of conventional chip production is a problem unique to the PC. But I can’t help noticing that Apple’s fancy new A8X chip in the new iPad Air is being made by none other than TSMC at 20nm (that’s a measure of the size of the tiny bits inside the chips and for decades the whole computer industry has been predicated on it becoming ever smaller, allowing faster and cheaper chips, google Moore’s Law for, er, more) .

It’s TSMC that pretty much makes all of AMD and Nvidia’s high performance graphics chips and the fact that they’ve been stuck for ages at 28nm waiting for TSMC to get its 20nm act together is something I’ve droned on about in posts passim.

But it turns out TSMC can make 20nm chips, it’s just Apple seems to have snapped up all the available allocation, which you’d think reflects where TSMC sees its priorities and the future – ie not the PC. Or maybe it’s just the allure of making the chip for one of the fruity firm’s new devices.

And while we’re talking about Apple’s A8X, the bloody thing’s got three billion transistors. In a tablet chip. Yes, yes I know it’s a sort of system-on-a-chip sort of chip with loads of non CPU-and-GPU functionality (though the iPad has plenty of other chips, let’s be clear). And we could even get into a discussion about layout versus schematic transistor counts (honestly, if you don’t know, you don’t need to). But even so, that’s way, way more than Intel’s top mainstream quad-core CPU for desktop PCs, the 1.4 billion transistor Core i7-4790K.

14 billion transistors. Count ’em

The really sobering comparison is that even Intel’s mighty eight-core Core i7-5960X only has 2.6 billion transistors. That’s $1,000 / £750 for a CPU with fewer transistors than another more complex chip that is just one part of an overall device with a touchscreen and wireless comms, a lithium battery pack and all the rest which is yours for just $500 / £400.

Of course, the biggest ever PC graphics chip, Nvidia’s GK110 as found in the GTX 780, 780Ti and various Titans tears the A8X a new Lightning port with over seven billion transistors. So a full-power PC is still the daddy. But it does make for an interesting value comparison.

On the other hand, and just to square this circumlocutory circle, we have news from tech industry soothsayers Gartner that tablet sales are now flatlining. From what I understand, what’s broadly happened is that everyone who wants and can afford a tablet kinda now has one, and the tablets they have basically work fine, so the big growth period is done.

The numbers are a bit complicated (you can see them here, if you care), but Gartner’s elevator pitch is thus: “Consumers’ attention is slowly going back to PC purchases as tablet adoption peaked with mainstream consumers.” Who’d a thunk it?

Any alternative to bashing endless orc-bots?

Anyway, all of this is interconnected in a fascinating but hard to properly pick apart kind of way. What exactly it all means for we gamers, well, don’t ask me.

Actually, when I say ‘we gamers’ I feel a bit fraudulent. I’ve been neglecting my gaming duties of late, what with a few projects on the go, and in an act of penance I’ve, *cough*, acquired an AMD Radeon R9 290X and set myself a mission of getting properly back on the horse.

Question for you lot, then, is what would you recommend to break in the new beast? I’ve got Shadow of Mordor and the Vanishing of Ethan Carter on my short list. What else should I be playing for a combination of middle-brow gaming pleasure and 1600p visual splendour? Actually, my current mood calls for something that falls bang in between Mordor and Ethan Carter in terms of the balance between bashing endless orc-bots to death and wandering around looking blankly at things while pulling the odd lever. Suggestions on a virtual postcard below, please.

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Jeremy Laird

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