Monday, April 25, 2011

What's coming...

When we think of fast computers, the first component that comes to mind is the CPU. Even in this time of "all hail to GPU", we can't ignore the fact that it's the CPU that still dictates the terms. So what's going on in the Processor market? How hot are the current chips? What could be the next big thing? These are the questions that need to be addressed. and that's exactly what I intent to do in my next article. So keep coming back:)

Friday, April 22, 2011

What happened to the Netbooks?

Today is April 22, 2011- the Earth day as we call it. Aside from the fact that I don’t know much about the melting of polar caps or the green house effects, I try to respectfully avoid them as these are serious matters stated by rather serious people. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care for the environment that I live in and to prove that I went with an ultra efficient 80+ bronze rated PSU in my last PC build. Which, I have no doubt, in process will save some polar bears from extinction. And that’s why it would only be fitting that today I draw your MMO-centric minds to something that has a strong greenish look and feel about it. No, I’m not talking about the latest graphics cards from nVIDIA. What I would like to talk about, had a stunning introduction followed by some impressive showing in the market place but is going through a flat phase right now and has a few question marks on it’s future. What I would like to talk about is netbook, the revolution of yester years.

The Inception
Asus Eee Pc, the pioneer

It was late 2007 and the world of I.T. and Computers was desperately trying to cope-up with the upcoming syndromes of global recession when ASUS dropped a piece of hardware which effectively took the consumer market by storms. ASUS Eee PC, as it is known now world wide, pioneered a whole new segment in the market. It is not like ASUS did something original because the concept of the netbooks (or a network computer) can date back to the 60s. And netbooks existed in form of OLPC and Apple eMate even in 90s (even there was controversy and litigation over the use of the term ‘Netbook’). But the problem with them was they were never meant to serve the mainstream consumer segment of the market. While OLPC project was targeted towards the governments and the extreme low end of spectrum, the Apple products as you can guess was quite the opposite. What Eee PC did was to hit the right balance between performance and cost – the surefire formula of success. Seeing the initial success of this new gadget other big names like Dell, MSI, and Acer jumped in the bandwagon without wasting any time and all of a sudden it were netbooks everywhere. Some called it a revolution while others remained unexcited, but none could ignore the stellar sell numbers these things generated. The first ASUS Eee PC sold over 300,000 units in just four months and many other success stories followed.

The Idea

The idea behind the netbooks was simple and reasonable. The internet revolution came hand in hand with the modern PC, mainly the Desktop PCs. But soon it was clear that the Net won’t be confined into just PCs and will spread throughout inspiring different forms and shapes of hardware. That’s exactly what has happened. The Net as we know it, never failed to amuse us and we found new ways to embrace it as each day passed. Today we have mails to check, sites to serf, pod-casts to attend and people to meet – anything and everything over the net. And all those not necessarily need you to be hooked on a PC since you don’t need huge processing power to do them. Which brings us to the Laptops but again the focus was on mainly performance and convenience, not things like battery life and cost effectiveness. At this point there was a block hole in the hardware market. While your smart phone had the technology to access the Facebook, it did lack the display and keyboard of your laptop; on the other hand your portable laptop could do all these things but was bit of overkill. Netbooks fit this scenario rather effectively as they let you perform all the basic tasks you expect from your Laptop while in a smaller and more power efficient form factor. Efficiency was the mantra that led netbook to its stunning successes, both cost and power wise.

The Hardware

The initial netbooks were very lean and simplistic hardware wise. As usual, the x86 architecture dominates the netbook realm too and though there are models where a non x86 (namely MIPS or ARM) processor is used but they are very rare. In most of the netbooks that have been sold in last few years, the system is built upon an Intel Atom CPU. Atom basically is a very low power chip which has its most uses in the embedded SOC (System on Chip) segment. The netbook/Ultra portable laptop revolution actually came as boon to Intel as Atom became the chip of choice of the OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturer) like ASUS, Dell and MSI. Atom’s very low (3-13 watts) power requirement coupled with the fact that it could handle most of the processing requests for day to day workloads like surfing, browsing, data uploading and downloading, made it perfect for netbook use. Although Atom had and still has its fare share of criticism due to its low performance ratings, there was simply not many viable choices (Chips like C7 and Nano from VIA were other notable alternatives). Most netbooks consisted 1 or 2 GB of system memory and very low capacity of storage in form of traditional HDD (Hard Disk Drive) or newer SSD (Solid State Drive) and no Optical Drive like DVD drive was included to maintain its low from factor. One of the main deficiencies of Atom was its anemic graphic performance, which is very important to enjoy the full potential of modern websites. Nvidia’s ION platform somewhat compensated this with its superior graphic performances. Displays varied from mere 7” in the early models to 11”+ in some latest ones. The most interesting parts of a netbook is considered its plethora of connectivity which goes from the regular ones like Ethernet and USB to the latest wireless technologies as Bluetooth, Wifi and 3G. Also other new techs are finding their way into the latest netbooks. As long hardware specs go, the dividing line between laptops/notebooks and netbooks is a very fine one. Now a day, every one has their own set of logics about what netbooks could not and should not do. Here is what Intel has to say about it.

The Present Scenario

When the netbooks came into the equation, many including people like me did think of them as hyped laptop wannabes. In my defense I can point to my long desktop background which does not easily allow me being attracted to something so small and weak in nature and performance. But things have changed as more and more people everyday is coming to appreciate the efficiency and convenience that these little gadgets provide. It is fare and safe now to consider the netbooks as an entity on its own in the personal computing hierarchy. The netbook market has matured hugely and increased its share. It’s the Laptop market which particularly has been affected the most by the emergence of netbooks. Netbooks have proven themselves as viable alternative to the laptops especially when the user’s main concerns are internet oriented activities like social networking and chatting. They’ve been good enough to be considered as a secondary PC by many. If you have a desktop which takes care of your primary computing and gaming, chances are you’ll take the netbook route for a secondary PC over a laptop. So do all these mean things are going pretty good and the future is flowery? Interestingly though, that doesn’t seem to be case. Some recent reports (click n click) shows the demands for netbook are in a decline. Although this is not case everywhere (more on this later), but overall the sells are somewhat flat. For someone who keeps track of the industry trends this is not very surprising. History repeats itself, but in this industry it does so more often than in any other. The emergence of “Tablets” has contributed greatly in decreasing demand for netbooks. It started with Apple’s introduction of the iPad and since then tablets are growing both in power and number. For me the tablets are funny little gadgets but they are doing the same thing to the netbooks what they did to laptops few years ago. But apart from that there are other reasons which may lead to the downfall of netbooks. It was efficiency and simplicity that made netbooks what they are but some manufacturers tend to forget that from time to time. There is a dividing line between laptops and netbooks and some netbooks in the market are treading in wrong side of it. A 12.5” WXGA display with 320 GB storage is no doubt a good thing but then it drives the cost to $500 which few can justify on a netbook, especially when one can find a full fledged laptop around that price mark. Same goes to software too as initial netbooks came with customized Linux OS or Windows XP, now there is Vista and Windows 7 and boatload of bloat-wares. All these things make the netbook unnecessarily heavy and complex, reduce its power efficiency and at the end defeat the main goal.

The Indian perspective

The Concept of the netbooks has well received in developing countries throughout the world, where both cost and power efficiency are considered major factors when buying a computer. India was no different and netbooks sells saw some huge increments here. Asus Eee PC was a very good success and even now when chips are a bit down in other countries like USA, Indian netbook market continues to grow. While this can be interpreted as a good sign for the future, I would like to point out two things. First and foremost matter of concern is the lack of understanding of the true benefits of a netbook among the common people. Many down here bought a netbook thinking it was a cheap laptop and the OEMs/vendors don’t seem to be unhappy with that either. Why should they bother about how their products are selling as long as they’re being sold, right? Students are the main buyers of netbook in India and while it is perfectly capable of being an educational companion, one shouldn’t expect to play 3d games on it! Another thing is that the tablets are yet to catch up with the rest of the market here in India. Once that happens, things may be different. But for now we’ve to understand that netbooks are better for some particular purpose and they are not cheap laptops and definitely not gaming machines.

The Future

This is the part where things get most interesting and even a desktop worshiper like me can’t deny that. The netbooks have matured and reached the point where it is no more just a trend or hype. The initial storm has withered and the competition has arrived in form of tablets. But the technology behind netbooks also made some significant progress.Recently there’ve been some advancement in both cpu and gpu which can prove to be very important for netbooks. Atom’s poor graphic performance has been the Achilles heals for the netbooks for long. But recently AMD, who’ve notably been absent from the netbook scenario, introduced couple of chips which they call as Fusion APU (Accelerated Processing Unit). These CPUs (or APUs) are based on AMD’s latest Bobcat cores which have a much more capable GPU built into them. These little things can deliver some serious graphic horse power and all those in a power envelope that fits a conventional netbook. Netbooks with these APUs are already out in the market and have been highly praised. On the other hand VIA technologies have their x86 compatible latest Nano cpu which though an unknown entity for now but can hold some surprises for the future. And finally there are the ARM based CPUs and SOCs (System on Chip), which have improved performance coupled with fantastic power efficiency. There is a good chance that ARM based designs, which dominate the embedded and smart phone markets, may become major player in ultra low power netbook/tablet market. But if ARM chips come into play, it’ll be advantage tablet since this where ARM based chips like Apple A4/A5, nvidia Tegra2 have already excelled. Finally we should not forget about the future generation of Atom itself. And while it is obvious that tablets are doing some damage to netbooks, they are not without some serious issues of their own. The inconvenience of typing on a tablet is well known and they are not known for their price-performance ratio. So it’s not like we’re seeing the end of netbooks, rather I think they have a long way ahead simply because the reasons why people chose netbooks are still pretty much relevant. But one thing I've learned about predictions is that they don't work in computer hardware industry, so for now we can only wait.

***Just a few days from the time of this writing, came a bombshell from the website The thought that Apple may move to ARM platform is nothing new but this could make some serious impacts none the less. At least this has again sparked the age old feud between ARM vs. x86. Right now it is anyone's guess as much things needs clarification. But things will be interesting for sure and Technoprozium will be there to give you a better understanding.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What's coming...

" Congratulation everybody, finally it seems like we've survived the Netbook onslaught."

As a general and traditional PC user, A Netbook always was a thing that made me both curious and disappointed. I watched as my friends went nuts on Netbooks in the last few years and tried to find the catch. But time has changed and now I think it's fare to evaluate Netbooks as an entity on its own. Question is - is it too late? Really, what happened to Netbooks, the revolution of yesterday? I have a theory....

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Fast Enough PC

If you would’ve asked me (or anybody in computer industry for that matter) seven years ago about a ‘Fast enough PC’, the answer used to be a simple one. Never! At that time it was a notion simply beyond our imagination. It was believed that PCs can’t be fast enough or at least not up to the point where one could say it was too much power! Surely there were PCs that could do wonders and technology that were no less than ground-breaking but the fact that you could do so much back then with your PC, more power was always welcome. In the last decade a ‘Fast enough PC’ used to be an exotic assembly of the best parts that money could buy and yet many things were left to desire. Thank you for reading up to this point and I know what you are about to ask. Why am I telling all this now, in 2011? Well the answer is not that simple but to satisfy your curiosity, I’ll tell this much- things have changed. And have changed in a rather radical way. If you are an enthusiast or one of those ‘forum junkies’, then by now you know what I’m going to convey. But to the rest I’ll urge to read on.

The last ten years or so have been marked by many technical and scientific breakthroughs which in process have impacted the way we do and see things. People are much more tech savvy now than they ever were. Technological advancements have come at a very fast pace and we’ve adopted just fine. But if there is one industry that in particular saw the biggest and fastest improvements throughout this period, it has to be the Computer industry. To be specific the world of personal computing as we know it has been blessed with some astonishing growth. This growth has been two-fold, both volume and quality have increased in a dynamical fashion. Gone are those days when you had to search the market in and out to buy a decent CD drive with 4x operational speed. Gone is the idea that desktop PCs are for professionals and 64 MB (yes, you’re reading it right) memory is luxury! In this era of 4G and Tablets, we are seating up there with the latest and greatest. Our country, India, is no different as the common people are indulging themselves into the marvels of silicon more and more. You can get yourself a super fast PC in no time if you have the will and of course the money. Things have been better than ever (not holding the global recession in account), but that is the big question: do we really need this much power? Or these advanced computing techs are just serious ‘over-kill’? The fact that you can spend just about 15,000 INR and have a new, fast and powerful system puts some serious question marks on the reasoning and merit behind the so called ‘High-end’ stuffs. How much do you need to spend actually to get yourself a ‘Fast enough’ PC? Many tech websites and forum around the net are trying to answer this question right now and believe me this is the best time to ask such questions. It is simply because as far as personal computing goes we have long passed the barrier of being bottlenecked by the PC itself. Today the bulk of operations one can expect from a general PC, are easily achievable from even the slowest system of this generation. Today’s desktops pack the power similar to that of a mainframe system or server cluster from last decade. And that is some statement to make in itself. But before we look at the computing power granted by today’s hardware, we should ponder a bit more on the changes that lead us to such performance.

As I mentioned earlier there’ve been some significant advancements in the field of computing. And as it is with everything else, the most important aspect of modern computing lies in its core (literally). In this case, we’re talking about the x86 core since it’s this x86 architecture that dominates the world of PC. Though there are several other RISC based architectures that still exists, they follow a different path altogether. The consumer (people like you, me and uncle Scruz) market of personal computing still evolves around the tested and proven x86-platform. And the most critical part of your Pc still remains its CPU. Here is one thing that you should take into consideration though, CPUs don’t enjoy as much supremacy now a days as they used to do back in 2001, mainly because of the emergence of modern GPU, but more on that later. CPU architecture has constantly evolved and as a result today’s CPUs can deliver amazing performance, and that too within a reasonable amount of money. There are many reasons as to why and how we managed to achieve such power, but we shall cut down to the main and most relevant ones.

1.> 64 Bit and integration of MCH- The shifting from 32 Bit to 64 bit computation has allowed the Processor to execute more complex instructions. Also now the CPU can utilize more resources (i.e. RAM) than ever. Also the fact that most of today’s processors have their MCH (Memory controller Hub) built into the chip itself has contributed greatly to overcome the FSB (Front Side Bus) bottleneck making the CPU faster than ever. This was first implemented by AMD in their Athlon 64 series of CPUs. Now Intel has the same in their latest i7/i5/i3 series.
2.> The cores and threads- CPUs have greatly changed in the manner they used to operate because the pattern of the usage has also changed. A CPU is traditionally serial in nature but after the introduction of multi-core processing that has changed drastically. A CPU now is not judged by its operating frequency alone but the number of cores it holds inside also matters. A high frequency is still desirable but at the same time there are many applications where a dual core processor with relatively low set of frequency will outperform one with high frequency but only one CPU core. And this is one trend that will surely increase in future as we already have 4/6 core chips in market. Technologies such as hyper-threading (Intel’s term of SMT-Symmetrical Multi Threading) also add to this increasing use of parallelism, where a single CPU core can execute up to two different application threads. Result being a faster CPU. Intel has pioneered this field and AMD likewise follows the same direction.
3.> The Process- ‘As technology grows, things get smaller’ is one of the principles derived from Moore’s law. The fabrication process of manufacturing CPUs is one of the most contributing factors behind the blazing performance of modern CPUs. As the processor die size shrinks the performance takes a jump since it enables more transistors to be put together in a lower power and thermal envelope. As an example,- A Pentium 4 (P4) 670 CPU chip was made in a 90 nm process where as the latest i7 2600k CPU from Intel has been made out of a 32 nm node.

So what all these facts lead us to? Before I answer that please have a look on this comparison chart. Here the before mentioned P4 670 (which by the way had a price tag of ~$800 that is more than 40,000 INR, back in 2005) goes head to head with a couple of modern CPUs, Core i3 540 from Intel and AMD’s Athlon II x4 635, as these are two cheap and entry-level CPUs of today. Why use the P4 670? Because it was one of the last Intel single core chips, was considered as one of the fastest with an operating frequency of 3.8 GHz! Quite amazing as far as clock speed goes. This chart below will give you a good idea of how yesterday’s best get along with todays cheapest.

you can find more on this comparison here
After going through those stats its obvious that today’s mainstream chips not only destroys yesterday’s best high-end part but also does so in a lot lower price point. Yes, this comparison is unfair in many regards but I used this only to show how much computing power we have at our disposal now a days. And when I consider the fact that my eight years old P4 1.9 GHz processor is still capable of performing typical day to day operations like net surfing, MS Office, playing some music and watching videos on You-tube, I can’t help but to think that’s lot of throughputs we’ve today.

Next we move to the Motherboard, the board that holds everything to its rightful place.
To be honest PC Motherboard today is not what it used to be, lots of functionalities of a Motherboard are now integrated into the Processor chip itself. So now the system asks lot less from its Motherboard. The memory controller chip or MCH is now can’t be found in Main-board Northbridge but it resides in the CPU. In latest Intel chips, the GPU and the PCIE controller hubs are also in the CPU. All these are good news for consumers, because lesser amount of components means low manufacturing cost and thus low MRP of motherboards. RAM or system memory is another important part for building a fast enough PC and we shouldn’t overlook that. Finally the days of slower DDR1 is behind us as we’re into the fast lanes of DDR3. But there are a significant number of systems running on DDR2 memory out there. What makes DDR3 better than DDR2 is the memory bandwidth as DDR2 can’t go beyond 1 GHz mark, where as DDR3 easily goes past 1600 MHz and more. On the downside DDR3 also has more latency per cycle than DDR2. And as far as DDR3 frequency goes we are not still sure whether it is better to go with super high frequency of 1600 MHz+ because applications don’t seem to get much benefit from that kind of high bandwidth. So for now there is no harm in sticking to your 800MHz (DDR2) 0r 1033 MHz (DDR3) modules.

As I said before, modern CPUs don’t enjoy being the only deciding factor behind the total system performance anymore. This is because of the revolution called gaming and rise of modern GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). A few years ago, people would’ve never thought they need more graphics processing power than what their integrated GPU could grant. It’s the emergence of 3D games that changed every thing. It is a well proven fact that a fast CPU will not warrant smooth game playing unless backed by a powerful GPU. Even then you don’t need the fastest of CPUs what you need is a fast enough CPU that doesn’t bottleneck your gaming experience. The power of discrete (external) GPUs of present is no less than awe inspiring. To day some people even think of GPU as a viable alternative to traditional CPU and that too with good reasons. The architectures of modern GPUs are very complex yet more flexible than that of a CPU. Being vastly parallel in nature, today’s GPUs are very effective not only in latest 3D games but in some other scenarios of parallel data processing, thus provoking the idea of GPGPU or General Purpose computing. But that is a different matter, for common people it is still regarded as a gaming component. And if we look towards the ever growing gaming culture and market (even in India), A GPU is a must for a gaming system. Another good thing is, chip makers like Intel and AMD have been forced to keep up with the entry level of discrete Graphics market and as a result the IGP (Integrated Graphics Processor) of modern generation are much stronger than their predecessors. In fact AMD has introduced a mobile chip for Laptops/Netbooks named Zakate which has an IGP that is similar in performance with some entry level discrete GPUs. Still if you are in process of building a gaming system, you are well advised to consider a discrete graphics card. Otherwise the IGP of modern platforms should serve you well and efficiently.

So now you can understand computing power is not a hurdle anymore to build a ‘Fast Enough PC’. Modern CPUs and GPUs grant you more than enough power if you know what you’ll do with your PC. This is the most important thing one should take in consideration when buying a PC, - the usage pattern. What do you expect from your PC will decide whether it shall be fast enough for you or not. Maximum people make serious misjudgments here and blame their PC later for not being fast enough. If you have special requirements, for example- professional 3D rendering or high resolution gaming then the phrase ‘Fast enough’ does not apply for you as you can always use more power. But for everybody else (and this is largest segment in consumer market), take my word, you can’t go wrong with a build like this:-

AMD Athlon II X3 450 (code name- Rana) CPU – (~ 4000 INR.)
MSI 880GM-E41 AM3 AMD 880G HDMI Micro ATX Motherboard – (~4000 INR)
2x2 GB 1333MHz DDR3 Kingston value RAM – (~2200 INR)
+ Everything else that suits your taste and budget
+ ATI Radeon HD6850 1GB (if you are a serious gamer in budget)

here are some benchmarks from Anandtech, which clearly shows these kind of configurations are more than capable of delivering significant performance for what they cost.

Off you go then! You shouldn’t have any complain if you are a computer novice, student, internet junkie, movie lover or even gamer. This build even has some good productivity headroom as you’ll see in the benchmark charts so if you’re a semi-pro or someone on learning curve, this system could help you further. Most important thing is, in regular activities like surfing internet explorer or listening to your favorite music and working with multiple instances of MS Office, you will not feel the difference between this system and a high-end and expensive one. You have some alternatives also like say, a core i3 530 in exchange of the Athlon CPU or different manufacturer for the main-board or an nVIDIA GTX 460 for graphics card. Either way you’ll have your fast-enough PC. One more thing, if you decide not to buy a discrete graphics card then make sure not to include a 20/22 inch monitor which will take you to HD (High Definition) resolutions like 1920x1080. In those resolutions you’ll be forced to provide more power for your games and videos. This is one common mistake that leads to more expensive hardware. On the other hand if you are a gamer and buying a graphics card- go ahead and pick a HD panel. The key for making a ‘Fast Enough PC’, - is knowing what you’re doing. I learned my lessons the hard way, hope you’ll do better. Regards:)

N.B.-This is my first try, so please don't flame this. If you find any mistake please point those in a comment. And please ask anything you want to ask.