Intel wants to make the PC great again, but it can't do so alone

Intel is so far ahead that several years of relative stagnation did little to dent its dominance.

There’s that apocryphal curse, rightly or wrongly attributed to the Chinese, that goes, “May you live in interesting times!” It’s considered a curse and not a blessing because “interesting times” also means a lack of peace and quiet, a lack of tranquility and stability in your life.

As someone who’s been a PC nerd for most of his life, I can say with certainty that I’m now living in interesting times.

Up until a couple of years ago, PCs were easy to understand and appreciate. WIntel (Windows + Intel, get it?) wasn’t just a catch-phrase. If you were a gamer, you simply bought an Intel-Nvidia based Windows PC. Unless you were constrained by price, there really was no other choice.

Intel wants to make the PC great again, but it cant do so alone

Intel was so far ahead in CPU design for so long that it ended up as a monopoly.

If anything, Intel was (and still is) even more dominant in the laptop space. Rival AMD’s laptop CPUs were always too power-hungry to balance power and battery life requirements.

Intel is so far ahead of the competition, in fact, that several years of relative stagnation did little to dent its dominance. Since Skylake, Intel’s 6th generation Core i architecture that made its debut four years ago, we’ve seen insignificant bumps in per core performance and negligible improvements in onboard graphics performance (until now).

There were updates, yes, we saw support for VP9 codecs and faster H.265 encoding and a few miscellaneous features, but the most significant bump, the doubling of cores that we saw in Kaby Lake-R, only happened after AMD got its act together and announced Zen.

Following this, Spectre and Meltdown raised their ugly heads. To those not in the know, these are vulnerabilities inherent to modern CPU architecture that affects all CPUs, including several ARM-based chips you’d find in a smartphone. Unfortunately for Intel, these vulnerabilities, and related vulnerabilities that were later discovered, had a far greater impact on Intel CPUs than those of rivals.

Mitigations for these vulnerabilities ate into Intel’s performance lead over rival AMD to the extent that mitigations for the most severe vulnerabilities could result in, by some estimates, a 40 percent drop in performance.

If that wasn’t bad enough for Intel, AMD also announced Zen 2 at Computex, an updated architecture that looks like it’ll compete neck and neck with Intel’s best.

And I haven’t even touched upon Qualcomm and its 8cx platform, an ARM-based CPU that promises 20 hours of battery life, always connected LTE and performance to rival Intel’s beloved low-power Core i5 mobile CPUs.

Is it all doom and gloom for Intel, then?

Far from it, and this is also where things get interesting.

Intel didn’t just become a monopoly by accident. Cut-throat marketing aside, it’s also a company that hires some of the best engineers in the business and, as per a 2018 estimate, spent over a billion dollars a month on research. That’s a larger RnD budget than Apple’s and nearly twice that of IBM’s.

All that brainpower and money has to amount to something, and it has. Spectre and Meltdown and everything else that followed were just pure, unadulterated bad luck. Despite the setbacks, Intel’s still managed to stay ahead of AMD on the performance front, and that’s saying something. Add to this the years of optimisations that devs have made for Intel hardware, and you know that Intel isn’t out of the running just yet.

 

First up, we have Intel Ice Lake. Ice Lake is the name of Intel’s latest CPU family, and unlike previous updates, this one actually matters. Expected speed bump aside, this is the first of Intel’s chips in almost five years to ship with graphics that can rival AMD’s APUs for graphical horsepower. APUs or Accelerated Processing Units are a combination of AMD CPU and Radeon graphics.

The new chip, claims Intel, is twice as fast as Intel’s previous offerings in graphical performance and in the demos I saw at Computex, the performance gap was quite apparent. Frame rates of 80+ fps in Counter Strike: Global Offensive at 1080p were a pleasant surprise, and the additional graphical oomph means that everyday tasks like photo editing and even web browsing will be much smoother.

 

Yet another update to the new platform is the introduction of DL Boost or Deep Learning Boost, a feature that we first saw on Intel’s enterprise-grade Xeon workstation CPUs. This is an AI accelerator of sorts that allows even ultra-low power laptop CPUs to perform AI tasks faster and more efficiently than before.

This might not seem like a big deal, but think about it, almost everything we do today has some element of ‘AI’ in it, and if all that processing can happen on your device, and especially on an ultrabook, imagine how much faster such tasks can get. There were demos where AI tools converted 2D images to 3D objects, upscaled video and sharpened images, but these are far from the most interesting applications of DL Boost.

 

With easier, faster access to AI, one can do things like more efficiently support AI voice assistants, intelligently delete backgrounds in real-time while chatting on Skype or live-streaming games.

 

One of the coolest demos I saw involved something called Intel Ambient PC. It’s a prototype PC that features a touch bar of sorts (Yes, it’s similar to that Apple Touch Bar we all love to hate) and two 180-degree cameras: one on the inside and one outside. This was paired with far-field microphones – the type you’ll find in an Amazon Echo device – to provide surprisingly easy access to a voice assistant like Alexa. This whole touch-bar-Alexa setup was powered by a secondary Intel Atom CPU built into the laptop, an approach not unlike Apple’s with the T2 chip.

With this setup, it’s possible to have seamless 360-degree video conferencing, for example.

Other features like native support for Thunderbolt 3 (on the CPU die), Wi-Fi 6 and more are material quality of life updates that we users will only appreciate once the ecosystem inevitably matures.

Project Athena: Defining new standards

When buying a Windows laptop today, you’re not guaranteed a great user experience. Laptops can be slow to charge, feature incredibly slow HDDs, screens that barely show enough colours, and speakers that will make you feel proud of your phone’s tinny drivers.

On the other hand, you can also have laptops that cost a bomb but offer crazy fast NVMe SSDs, gorgeous, colour-accurate displays and Dolby-certified speakers. To the average user, it’s finding the middle ground that’s hard. Identifying the differences will not be easy from spec sheets alone.

In part to address such issues, Intel has come up with Project Athena. Essentially, Athena is a set of specifications that define a certain level of performance that one can expect from a laptop. These specs include at least 16-hours of pure video playback time (say, when you’re on a flight), 9-hours of battery life in real-world conditions, the ability to wake from sleep in under a second, and a whole lot else besides.

This spec was defined after looking at data on real-world usage patterns of users.

Intel isn’t yet sure how to brand laptops that meet these specifications, which are themselves only at version 1.0 and will be revised as needed, but devices that meet this spec should arrive later this year. It’s a great initiative from Intel, and I’m only surprised something like this didn’t happen sooner.

Another issue is that it’s not yet clear whether the spec will have an impact on mid-range devices, where it’s most needed. Most Ultrabooks will comply with the specs just by virtue of their price.

Will users (and devs.) bite?

This is the more pertinent question right now. Even with the PC market perpetually on a decline and mobile phones and the “cloud” taking over all aspects of our lives, a PC is still essential for many. But today, it’s hard to pinpoint where the PC slots into our lives. Is it an essential tool, like a screwdriver, that you just need to have around the house? A device you just need for work purposes? Or is it something more?

Spokespersons from the likes of Dell and Lenovo have told us that for enterprise users, the priority is still security. Features like Optane, Thunderbolt 3 and colour-accurate displays are afterthoughts.

To top it off, AMD’s offerings are actually sounding quite interesting and I, for one, am going to be keeping a close eye on the company’s laptop offerings. Qualcomm’s ACPC is also interesting and a new take on the PC that attempts to meld the best of the smartphone world with that of the laptop.

From what I’ve seen of the competition, Intel appears to still be offering the more refined and cohesive platform, but that doesn’t mean it’ll have it easy. Features like Optane, on-die Thunderbolt 3 support, Wi-Fi 6 and DL Boost are nice, but I suspect it’ll be a while before they make their presence felt.

The future of the PC is looking just that little bit muddy right now, and while there is a clear winner for the moment, the competition is fast catching up.

Things are certainly getting interesting.

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