Many people don't think much about the chips that power their computing devices. However, the microprocessor inside your portable and desktop computers—and, to a lesser extent, other devices such as PDAs and MP3 players—is a big determiner of the kind of experience you'll have. For PCs, specifically, the choice was always very simple: You purchased a new machine with an Intel or AMD microprocessor, balanced the cost with the highest possible clock speed, and didn't think about it again until it was time to upgrade. Today, things are a little more complex.
Innovations and Challenges
On the desktop side, AMD has innovated by adding 64-bit capabilities to the Intel-compatible microprocessor line, ushering in a new era of x64-based machines that even Intel is copying. But on the mobile-computing side, it's Intel that has come out ahead. After running into thermal and performance walls with its ever-higher-megahertz policy of the past decade, the company has recently latched onto a new strategy, in which it measures success by a power-to-wattage ratio. Yep, it's going to require some consumer education. But the changes that Intel has made will forever change the landscape of computing.
The theory goes like this: Although it's possible to continue to ratchet up clock speeds and make newer microprocessors appear to be faster than the models they're replacing, there are many problems with this approach. First, faster chips run hotter and therefore require more energy—a particular problem for mobile PCs. Second, faster chips have silicon-leakage problems, which make them unstable, reducing processor yields. Third, without a revolutionary processor-manufacturing breakthrough, faster chips tend to get bigger and bigger physically. This factor has all kinds of ramifications, in addition to those already mentioned.
The trick, of course, is to manufacture smaller processors that perform better on a per-wattage basis than their predecessors. Smaller processors run cooler and are generally more battery-friendly than older designs. But the bigger challenge is to figure out a way to communicate to customers that newer chips are better than their predecessors, even though the clock speeds might not be as high. Although the measurement was never accurate, PC buyers have long been known to compare processor clock speeds. Companies such as Apple once referred to this phenomenon as "the megahertz myth."
Intel Got Lucky
Intel's in-house processor designs were woefully inadequate for this brave new world, but the company's Israeli labs produced a new mobile processor, the Pentium M, which solved the heat problems that plagued its Pentium III and Pentium 4M chips. Combined with a marketing effort around the Centrino mobile platform, the Pentium M was a huge hit and now powers most mobile computers.
Intel's follow-up to the Pentium M, dubbed the Core processor, is one of the most important products in the company's history. The Core processor comes in two variants: Core Solo, a version with a single processor core, and Core Duo, a high-powered dual-processor core version. Compared to the energy-thrifty Pentium M, the Core processors are even more miserly. Better yet, the Core Duo offers a 60 percent performance boost over similar Pentium M chips—but with no battery-life penalty. It supports new sleep modes and better transitions between sleep modes by managing voltage better. And separate versions are available for virtually every kind of mobile computer imaginable.
In the near future, Core-based chips will replace Intel's desktop and server microprocessors as well, officially ending the Pentium generation. That day is still some months off, but I've been testing two Core Duo-based machines at home for the past few months. One, Apple's beautiful new Intel-based iMac, is actually a desktop machine, and it provides proof that the right mobile processor is perfectly adequate for desktop use, as I've long suspected. The second is a stunning high-end ThinkPad notebook computer. Now made by Lenovo, the ThinkPad line has always been highly regarded. This latest model is the best yet.
I've written about the iMac a few times already in Connected Home Express. What I haven't mentioned is that I temporarily transitioned to this machine as my main desktop. For the past two months, I've been using the iMac for email, Web browsing and research, writing, photo, video, and music management, and personal information management through iCal. The specifics of this experiment are fodder for another day, but suffice it to say that the stock iMac has been plenty fast enough for my needs. Like many of you, I consider myself a power user: I run multiple applications all day long, and I expect instant response. The iMac has delivered that and more.
What's most impressive is the way the iMac handles processor-intensive tasks. For example, I use an open-source tool called Handbrake to rip my DVDs to MPEG-4 format so that I can watch them in QuickTime on the road. On my PowerPC G4-based PowerBook, ripping a DVD takes several hours. But on the iMac, this task takes about an hour. That's an astonishing improvement.
The ThinkPad is equally amazing. I'm testing a ThinkPad T60 with a 2GHz Intel Core Duo processor—the same chip in the iMac—1GB of RAM, and a 100GB hard disk. It's sleek, sexy, and powerful, and it could easily double as a desktop machine, thanks to its speedy processor and powerful graphics chip. As with the iMac, I'll be writing more about this intriguing new ThinkPad in the days ahead. But what's amazing is that the ThinkPad doesn't suffer battery-life problems, despite the power of its processor. You can run modern 3D games on the machine if you want, but it also goes the distance with an extended battery and aggressive power management.
Let's Get Small
This, then, is the future of computing: Power and performance, with great battery life for mobile users. The artificial days of megahertz measurements are over, and if you can wrap your mind around the notion that bigger isn't always better, maybe Intel won't have to market this one at all.