Darren Yates discusses where it’s headed, based on what he’s learnt from Intel’s fourth-generation Core platform.
The PC isn’t dying, but you’d have to say it’s not doing too well. That’s the message from the first-quarter 2013 global PC shipment figures from market analyst IDC. Compared with the same period in 2012, this year’s first-quarter figures were down nearly 14%, the largest drop in history and IDC has no qualms about who’s to blame.
“At this point, unfortunately, it seems clear that the Windows 8 launch not only failed to provide a positive boost to the PC market, but appears to have slowed the market,” said Bob O’Donnell, IDC Program Vice President, Clients and Displays. “While some consumers appreciate the new form factors and touch capabilities of Windows 8, the radical changes to the UI, removal of the familiar ‘Start’ button and the costs associated with touch have made PCs a less attractive alternative to dedicated tablets and other competitive devices. Microsoft will have to make some very tough decisions moving forward if it wants to help reinvigorate the PC market.”
Ouch. Locally, the drop in our neck of the woods (Asia Pacific) came in at 12.7% year on year, the first time our region has seen a double-digit slump. All PC brands went backwards, with Acer recording an extraordinary 31.3% crash in global sales.
However, the important question is, where does the PC go from here? Does it have a future or will we all be wistfully remembering the good, old days as we communicate on the apcmag.com web site with our tablets and smartphones?
The Wintel problem
If the 1990s/2000s IT landscape was characterised by anything, it was the Wintel alliance — the unbeatable combination of Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Intel’s CPU technology, which saw PC sales skyrocket. While neither would have seriously minded their rising successes being tied to the other, you can bet they’re not as happy as they start coming down the other side.
From the hardware side of things, Intel has managed to deliver a reasonably stable platform with regular improvements for much of the last 20 years. Despite having some excellent silicon, AMD unfortunately has been largely neutered as serious competition. Intel’s massive marketing budget certainly wouldn’t have helped.
Aside from some excellent new features in Microsoft’s latest OS, IDC has effectively said Windows 8 has been an ‘own goal’ for the PC market and even helped accelerate the take-up of smartphones and tablets, a market that’s completely owned by Intel rival ARM.
Does that mean Intel can blame everyone else for the slump the PC is in right now? Of course not — Intel has to shoulder a significant proportion of the blame for doing too little to innovate elsewhere.
If you step back and look at the big picture, you can see how market pressure is driving the chip giant. Intel is now as much concerned with performance as it is power consumption. Reduced power consumption computing (RPCC) undergirds just about everything in the mobile and server space right now. You can’t read about a new server processor release without hearing about its low TDP, or a new mobile quad-core-powered device without debate about its battery life. Combine all of this together and you get a pretty fair idea of where the PC as a platform is headed for the next few years.
Windows 8 is taking the blame for the slowdown in PC sales.
The future for desktops
Continued process node reductions have enabled CPU makers to take more and more features off the motherboard and squeeze them inside the processor itself. Memory controllers, voltage regulators, graphics processing units, even the North Bridge itself now exist only as CPU silicon. That, along with continued miniaturisation, has seen Intel develop the NUC design, which we showed you earlier in the year.
Reducing the desktop computer to little more than a stack of half-a-dozen CD cases in size while at the same time reducing power consumption is where Intel expects the consumer and enterprise desktop to end up. All-in-one designs have grown considerably in the last five years and Intel still sees growth for business and consumer versions in the coming period.
Intel is pushing the all-in-one design where it still expects to see growth.
So where does that leave PC gaming? The market reality is that the current PC form factor will continue while ever there are consumers coughing up sufficient cash to keep the discrete component industry afloat. The growing sophistication and lower cost of gaming consoles, let alone the boom in tablet gaming, will continue to put pressure on PC gaming hardware prices.
That will mean further cost reductions and as queasy as it makes us feel, it’s very likely more PGA/pre-soldered desktop CPUs like the Core i7-4770R are on the cards rather than less. That Intel has only given the LGA socket qualified support until 2015 further suggests an inevitable move is coming.
Intel’s NUC, the desktop of the near-future?
The future for laptops
Part of the problem with the PC has been the continual erosion of average selling prices. It’s been acknowledged as part of AMD’s larger financial woes and it’s affecting laptop sales. The one laptop platform where there is still hope is ultrabooks. The ultra-compact designs sell for more than standard laptops and Intel said at its September 2012 IDF conference that it expected there to be around 140 ultrabook designs by the time Haswell launches in June.
The key aspect involving Haswell here is that Intel is claiming the new CPU will be the first CPU designed specifically for ultrabooks, with TDP options down to as low as 10W.
Intel is still churning out quad-core chips for the performance/gaming end of the laptop market, although expect to see the chip giant push hard with ultrabooks and ultrabook convertibles to try and take on the tablet market.
If you can’t beat ‘em: ultrabook convertibles like this Lenovo will take on the tablet market with Haswell.
Adding further weight to this view has been our sighting of a long list of upcoming Haswell/ULV processors from the Core i7-4558U to the Core i5-4258U and i5-4200Y, down to the Core i3-4005U, all in combination with the three main new iGPU options: the GT2/HD 4400, GT3/HD 5000 and GT3/ HD 5100.
You’ll continue to see budget 15-inch bricks for the foreseeable future, but it’ll be ultrabooks combined with Windows 8.1, delivering excellent performance and true day-long battery life that could well be Wintel’s renaissance. Throw in these ULV parts and it might also give ARM something to think about.
It's an evolving platform
It might sound like we’re selling a sob story about price erosion, but the reality is that as profits drop, manufacturers look for ways to cut costs. Losing CPU sockets, adding more integration and delivering new platforms are all key factors in keeping the PC market alive. Regardless of where your standpoint is, the PC market simply can’t continue to drop sales at the rate of 14% per quarter for too long without change. However, if you look back 10 or more years ago to the Slot-cartridge CPU era, change and integration have been part and parcel of what is always an evolving platform.
Yes, the PC is in trouble, although the reality is that it still delivers a level of performance that tablets and smartphones can only dream of. Combine that with lightweight portable and compact desktop designs plus greatly improved power consumption, and the PC may well change what it looks like, but the platform will still exist for a few more years yet.