Desktop Core Wars: Do They Matter Anymore?

Intel 4th Gene Core™ logos

Intel “Haswell” 4th gen Core™ processors (Photo credit: Intel)

How much smaller and smarter will processors get? By coding more instructions and features on progressively smaller processor dies (which are thus faster and draw less power), not just devices like tablets and smartphones, but big screen TVs are becoming a relatively inexpensive reality, too. By 2018, we may have processor dies as small as 8 nm.* However, ultra-thin material and manufacturing alternatives to silicon-based semiconductors are being examined, as die dimensions at or below 15 nm will have hit their theoretical performance limitations with silicon. 

AMD Fusion logos

AMD “Richland” Fusion APUs (Photo credit: AMD)

As fascinating as the figures of the above paragraph may be if just for purely statistical reasons, the laudatory statements issued by proponents, and the slick ad campaigns of both manufacturers extolling the virtues of adopting their new respective platforms and microarchitectures, I wonder: have we reached a boredom threshold with the pace of these high-tech advances? Windows 8 opened to great fanfare in October 2012, but early sales of desktops equipped with Microsoft’s latest desktop OS were disappointingly slow.

And, in the latest round of what I’ll call the ongoing “Core Wars”, the two remaining microprocessor manufacturers of any significance released their latest desktop computing additions this year: the 4th generation of Intel® Core™ processors in June, and the (much-delayed) 3rd generation AMD A-Series “Richland” Fusion APUs in the March-June timeframe. But it seems that lukewarm consumer demand is, once again, trumping early adoption urges.

Osborne 1 Luggable

At 23.5 lbs, you needed to be fit to ‘lug’ around the Osborne 1

Let’s take a walk down memory lane. I grew up with computers. On my first, a Radio Shack “Trash-80″ Model III with 16K of memory, a game could only be played by typing every bit of its entire BASIC coding correctly and hitting the [Enter] key to execute it. My dad built our first 8086 computer, and I became acquainted with the lingo of amber decay, CGA, EGA, ROM, bulletin board systems (and the marvelously antiquated method of dialing into and doing the requisite handshake) and the 5.25” floppy. I gloried in the release of the 9600 baud modem and then its 14.4K successor.


alas poor CD, I knew him well

The thrill was still there when I bought my first 1GB hard disk drive. I worked in computer distribution for quite a few years and was privileged to be exposed to a great variety of products with a high “wow” factor in both the PC and CE realms. I saw mainstream monitor real estate quadruple in the space of three months, the six-month fascination with the netbook fad(e), LCD projectors drop from retail prices of $30,000 to $300 in five years, CDs and DVDs go the way of dinosaurs, the death of HD DVD before it had even gotten out of the gate, and the eminent demise of Blu-Ray even now.

iPhone 5

there’s no getting off the grid now (Photo credit: Apple)

We have grown accustomed (spoilt?) to expect these rapid evolutionary “upgrades” from the IT industry with much less wide-eyed wonder than before–to the degree that we will postpone purchases until two, maybe three generations beyond our current technology (or at least, until a really, really good back-to-school/Christmas/Black Friday/Cyber Monday promotion comes along). Other than that, I have to ask: despite its evolution in smaller forms like NUC computing, is desktop computing entering the twilight of its existence? Have we finally heard its death knell with the rise of more portable technologies like tablets, ultrabooks, smartphones, and (get ready for it), phablets?

With buyer behaviour now more conservative, I believe product lifecycles must be extended and proper R&D needs to be done, so the successor product that’s issued 6-8 weeks later isn’t really version 1.1 in disguise. In the race to the proverbial top, IT manufacturers will need to reassess the imperative to be “first to market” with a new flavour every 3-6 months to retain our attention spans. Because you have to put bragging rights aside when having to fix the latest and greatest–repeatedly–leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouths.

*as a real-world comparison example: a strand of human hair is 60,000 nm 
in diameter. A nanometer (nm) is one-billionth of a meter, or 1/10,000 
the diameter of a human hair, and invisible to the unaided eye.

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