Saturday, May 18, 2024

The chip war is coming to PCs

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When was the last time you thought about the computer chip in your laptop? For most people, the answer is “I don’t even think about it” – they just want to be. But like it or not, a series of new chips hitting the market could soon change the landscape of personal computers.
One sign that something is up is the wave of news about central processing units (CPUs) — the general-purpose processors that power personal computers and servers. This week, when Apple unveiled its latest high-end Mac devices, the new M3 chips got most of the attention.
Since Apple began moving away from relying on Intel chips for its Macs three years ago, Apple’s in-house silicon designs have set new standards for performance and battery life that have surpassed much of the PC world. Its chips are based on ARM’s blueprints controlled by SoftBank and feature designs that are a major alternative to the X86 technology used by Intel. This was a challenge to the entire personal computer world based on the x86 chip architecture.
Last week, mobile chipmaker Qualcomm unveiled its own computer chip based on ARM technology. It was the first chip based on designs from Novia, founded by some of Apple’s senior chip engineers, which Qualcomm bought two years ago and signaled the start of a real technology race in personal computer chips.
Running Windows on ARM chips is an old, useless idea in the computing world. More than a decade of efforts to achieve this goal have yielded little, making the idea easy to dismiss.
But a report that Nvidia is working on an ARM-based computer chip for the chip, elegantly dubbed Snapdragon, has led to a growth in anticipation.
Intel, which dominates the PC chip market, is doing its best not to be swayed by all that’s going on. With high barriers to entry in the field, and with good reason. Heavy investments by hardware makers and all other companies that flourished in the PC world made it deeply entrenched. It’s the only widely recognized consumer chip brand that makes it the default choice—one that’s even more powerful when computers powered by a new line of chips hit store shelves.
Perhaps most importantly, all software written for the computers had to be reengineered to work with ARM chips — a huge task given the huge software portfolio.
Even with these structural advantages, Intel’s manufacturing mistakes caused it to depend on old technology that could be irrelevant. It makes next month’s official release of the first PC chips based on Intel’s long-awaited Intel Core 4 manufacturing process a critical moment in the company’s comeback bid.
All of this creates a race in the world of casual personal computing, with Intel trying to regain the lead by making rapid productivity improvements over the next two years, and Apple trying to protect the clear lead it has achieved. Its Mac chips and a new wave of… ARM-based computers will hit the market.
Two things are likely to determine the outcome. First, the awe felt by PC makers at Apple’s progress. Starting in the middle of next year, with the arrival of the first personal computers powered by the new Qualcomm chip, PC companies hope to demonstrate their ability to compete with or surpass Apple in outright performance.
This is a recipe for confusion as buyers try to pick their way through competing X86 and ARM-based PCs from the same PC makers.
One of the key questions is how much companies are willing to spend to support multiple product lines and invest in marketing – and for how long?
Another force that could change the balance of power in the world of personal computer chips is artificial intelligence. AI’s high computing demands have led to a greater focus on NPUs, or neural processing units, the on-chip components that handle artificial intelligence — an area where Qualcomm’s new chip has won praise.
However, AI-powered applications make people want to rush to upgrade their computers. Services like GPT Chat run in the cloud, and while the companies behind them no doubt want to shift some of the expensive processing requirements of these services to their users’ personal devices, it’s not yet clear how. If artificial intelligence becomes as revolutionary as many in the tech world believe, the new PC chip wars will change the computing landscape. But it will be a very long campaign.

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Stuart Wagner
Stuart Wagner
"Professional coffee fan. Total beer nerd. Hardcore reader. Alcohol fanatic. Evil twitter buff. Friendly tv scholar."

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