The State of the Industry, March 2006: Through Silent Eyes

The Silent Front
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PERFORMANCE PER WATT

All of this is good and fine, but the main sources for high energy consumption and heat in the PC are still the CPU, and especially in the last two years, the GPU (graphics processing unit). Leaving the latter for the moment, CPUs have become steadily hotter over the past couple of decades. There has been a direct correlation between computational performance and heat. The speediest 386 CPU made by Intel back in the mid-late 80s ran at 33MHz and produced less than 2W of heat. It was usually cooled with a little piece of extruded aluminum barely an inch square. Today, the hottest desktop processors from Intel have an official TDP of 130W and have been measured to draw as much as 160W by third party reviewers. Desktop processors from AMD are cooler, topping out at a realistic 110W. These numbers are a long way from <2W.

The decades-old clock speed race which caused such escalations in CPU power demand finally ended in October 2004 when Intel announced it would not seek to reach 4 GHz clock speed for its Pentium 4. Leakage losses and ever escalating thermals spelled the end of further development of the P4 core, and Intel shifted strategy to uphold multi-core processing as the new path to computational nirvana. (By then, Intel's closest competitor, AMD, had already introduced the Athlon 64, which was outperforming faster-clocked, more power hungry P4s, and had the benefit of 64-bit capability implemented as an extension of x86 architecture.)

Intel has been promoting the concept of performance-per-watt since the Fall 2005 Intel Developers Forum (IDF). They are not alone in this endeavor; the rest of the industry has already been focused on this concept for some time. Ashlee Vance, writing about last week's Spring 2006 IDF for The Register, says that finally, Intel's talk starts to match rivals' products. Mr. Vance presents his case with withering sarcasm, opening with the following lines:

"You have to hand it to Intel for talking about power management and the benefits of multi-core processing with such confidence. Using reality distortion, Intel has convinced itself that it pioneered such technology instead of being the lone laggard to catch up with the rest of the industry."

The rest of the article documents sharply how Sun Microsystems, IBM, and AMD have been ahead of Intel in multicore processors, power efficiency, and "green computing" matters. As a point of fact, on January 31, 2006, Sun, AMD, HP and other companies teamed up with the EPA's Energy Star to sponsor a Conference on Enterprise Servers and Data Centers: Opportunities for Energy Savings.

The salient fact for SPCR is that with Intel finally in line with its competitors, power efficiency in computing is where it should be: Smack dab in the center of engineering objectives for all the players who make processors. AMD processors are already quite efficient, with rated Thermal Design Power dropping steadily as they introduce new steppings (versions) of Athlon 64 single and dual models; their real TDP is often just half that of comparative current Intel desktop processors. Intel promises a dramatic reduction of power and improvements in performance in their Conroe desktop processor, due to become available in the third quarter of 2006. AMD, always more conservative about future product revelations, has indicated that new Athlon 64 X2 models slated to be released in Q2 this year in their forthcoming AM2 socket (with DDR2-800 support) will be more than competitive with Conroe's performance and target 65W TDP. Their Turion 64 X2, also slated for Q2 release with dual-channel DDR2 support in a new socket called S1, will be directly competitive with Intel's Core Duo processors. So it seems that a phase of cooler and quieter CPUs from AMD and Intel is assured for the near future.

MOBILE ON DESKTOP

Intel's first power-efficient desktop products came from partners AOpen, DFI, and Shuttle, who offered desktop boards and systems for the Pentium M, till now considered a mobile processor. A new term has been coined for this type of product: Mobile on Desktop (MoDT). Now, Intel has redefined its Pentium M and latest offshoot Core Duo and Core Solo processors as suitable for both desktop and mobile processors. Again, the first to make use of the latest high efficiency Intel CPU is a partner ? this time, Apple, who is using the Core Duo effectively for an extremely quiet integrated computer, the iMac. The 17" and 20" LCD iMacs have rated SPLs of just 20 and 22 dBA at a distance of approximately 60cm. (See our User's Review of the 20" iMac.) Such low noise is simply not feasible without the low power Core Duo processors used in these new iMacs. We are aware of several Core Duo MoDT products being prepared by Intel partners AOpen, Asus, Shuttle and probably DFI. There could well be many others we are not aware of.


Soon to come i975Xa-YDG MoDT board from AOpen: Core Duo support with dual PCIe-16 slots.

MINI-ITX

Then there is the tiny power-efficient mini-ITX platform, which continues to expand. VIA, the creator of the m-ITX platform, finally has the long awaited fanless, even tinier nano-ITX products in the market, as well as new C7 processor-embedded m-ITX board running at 1.5GHz and 1.2 GHz. Others using VIA C7 processors (at up to 2GHz clock speed) for m-ITX boards now include big names like MSI, Gigabyte, Samsung and DFI, to name just a few. AOpen, expanding its MoDT product range, has brought Intel Core Duo / Solo to the m-ITX platform with several new boards shown at CEBIT 2006. (For detailed, dedicated coverage of mini-ITX, please visit www.mini-itx.com.) The power demands for most of these systems will probably be under 30W in idle mode.



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