by December 17, 2005 0 comments

Predictions for 2006
  • PCs and servers
    based on dual-core processors will become mainstream

  • Mobile versions of
    Dual core CPUs from Intel and AMD will be released, resulting in more
    powerful notebooks

  • Overall PC platform
    will incorporate more features within the hardware, such as security,
    virtualization and manageability

  • SATA II-based hard
    drives will become mass market

Basic hardware is perhaps the toughest market for any
vendor to be in, largely because the competition is stiff and margins are low.
The moment someone introduces something new in the market, it’s soon followed
by hundreds of ‘me toos’. So a vendor can only earn a premium on the product
till others catch up. What does that have to do with technology? It’s nothing
else but market forces, right? Wrong. In order for a vendor to be able to sell
its product in the market, it has to innovate. It has to spend on R&D, and
constantly introduce better products into the market. Not only that, but the
vendor has to innovate quickly in order to remain visible in the market. The end
result is that you get to hear of so many technologies and see such variety in
the market.

To give you an idea of what we mean, we’ll narrate an
experience. We visited


early this year to see Gigabyte’s manufacturing facilities. There we found
that Gigabyte has gone far beyond being a motherboard manufacturing company, and
put its fingers in many other pies. These included PCs, Servers, notebooks,
graphics cards, mouse, wireless devices, optical drives, networking equipment
and several others. Some of these like PCs, servers and graphics cards were
there much earlier, but others like mouse and wireless devices are new. It was
amazing to see such diversity being introduced from a company that was purely
known for its motherboards. But if you’ll notice, you’ll find this trend of
product portfolio expansion across most hardware manufacturers. Graphics
maestros nVidia and ATi for instance, have also gotten into the motherboards
market in addition to being in the graphics cards business. They’re also
pushing their graphics technology inside other products as well, including
consumer electronics devices and digital gadgets. Hard drive manufacturers are
not moving beyond their products, but are doing enough innovation in their own
stream and going to newer markets. So besides being inside a PC or server, a
hard drive today can be inside consumer electronics devices, digital devices,
automobiles, NAS boxes and much more. Hard drive manufacturers are introducing
more innovative ways of selling their hard drives. Their capacities have already
reached half a Terabyte on one side, while on the other their form factor is
becoming small enough to fit inside a pocket.

Milestones ’05
April May June October November
AMD introduced its dual-core solutions portfolio for servers and workstations; ships samples of dual-core for desktop to select OEMs worldwide. ATI announces CrossFire multi-card graphics capability, in response to nVidia’s SLI-based graphics cards. Both technologies set a new standard for gaming, featuring far better graphics quality and performance. TAMD announces its Turion 64 mobile technology for notebooks. Intel announces first dual-core, Hyperthreaded Xeon Processor. AMD opens its CPU manufacturing facility, Fab 36 in Dresden, Germany; expects to double its microprocessor shipments to 100 million units by 2007. Intel announces its P4 processors with virtualization technology, allowing PCs to host multiple Operating Systems in different partitions. 

All this action obviously translates to greater variety and
more competitive pricing for consumers. Take motherboards for instance, there
was a time when one could clearly distinguish between expensive and cheap
motherboards. For instance, Asus and Gigabyte motherboards were expensive, while
Mercury and Tomato were cheap, and Intel was somewhere in between. Now, you see
everybody selling everything, starting from Rs 3.5-4K and going beyond Rs 10K.
The trend now is to build highly feature-rich motherboards, with lots of
functions onboard, whether it’s 7-channel surround sound, Gigabit Ethernet,
WiFi, RAID or FireWire ports. While this trend is good for consumers, it’s
also forcing the component manufacturers to innovate further so their products
don’t become redundant. So even though you can get 7-channels onboard audio,
you’ll find sound cards with even more compelling features, such as the
Creative X-Fi. Speaking of compelling, lots of compelling technologies were
introduced this year with equally compelling applications. Let’s get into them
and see their impact, now and for the next year.

Hit or

Creative X-Fi
Though motherboards are increasingly putting everything onboard, component manufacturers keep coming out with more compelling products you’d drool to buy. The Creative X-Fi for instance, has features that give your PC theatre-class audio quality (paired with the right set of speakers of course), audio creation capabilities, and an internal drive bay with connectors for audio creation, headphones, and PC gaming. Who’d care about 7-channel onboard sound then? 

Acer Altos Server 
The trend amongst server manufacturers is to ship dual-core servers, instead of dual-CPU. According to server manufacturers like Acer, the performance remains the same. Both Intel and AMD have introduced dual-core processors for both desktops as well as servers. Next year, you should find servers with dual-core CPUs. The impact-a server with two CPU sockets that are filled with dual-core processors will actually mean a four-way server!

SLI based gaming machines 
Nvidia’s Scalable Link Interface Technology, or SLI based machines kicked into action this year. The technology allows multiple GPUs to be placed on the same motherboard, thereby literally doubling the performance. We reviewed the first one to be launched in India in June this year. The machine from Zebronics featured two GeForce 6800GTX cards as shown below.

Key innovations and their impact
Several key innovations took place this year, which will define the IT
landscape for next year. We’ll start with graphics, and major focus this year
has been to have multi-GPU solutions, ie, putting multiple graphics cards in the
same machine and making them work together. This started with the introduction
of SLI, or Scalable Link Interface technology by nVidia. With SLI, you could
take two nVidia graphics cards and place them both in a SLI-ready motherboard.
Both graphics cards would work together, thereby literally doubling the
performance. Soon afterwards, ATI introduced its CrossFire multi-GPU technology.
The big deal about this one was that people who already had certain ATI Radeon
cards could buy another CrossFire Edition card and use the two together. This
saved them the cost of buying another card. Since both SLI and CrossFire are
relatively new, only gaming freaks with very deep pockets can afford them. But
going by the trend in the hardware segment, that shouldn’t be the case for too
long. Next year, they’ll become common and something better will emerge. What
will it be next? Multi-core GPUs? You never know!

Speaking of multi-core, Intel and AMD both introducing
their dual-core processors this year, called Pentium D and X2 respectively.
Multi-core technology as such is nothing new. It’s been there inside
RISC-based processors, such as those from IBM and Sun, which power high-end
servers. But with Intel and AMD also jumping into the multi-core bandwagon, the
technology has now reached desktops, which is worth noticing. By next year, one
should see dual-core CPUs completely taking over from single core. The advantage
of course is much better performance, especially when doing multi-tasking.
Moreover, both Intel and AMD have also introduced their multi-core technology
into their server CPUs, Namely the Xeon and Opteron, and the first servers based
on this technology have already started shipping (see the Acer Altos server
review in this month’s shootout). Like desktops, most server manufacturers are
likely to replace their dual-CPU offerings with dual-core ones by next year.

We’re not through with CPUs yet. The mobile processors
for notebooks are also expected to switch to dual core next year, resulting in
much more powerful notebooks.

Many other technologies have entered the CPU this year
besides dual-core, which will make the processors more powerful and yet less
power hungry. The significant one to remember for the next year is
virtualization. Processors with virtualization will allow multiple


to be run on the same machine in multiple partitions. So far this was possible
only through specialized software such as VMWare and MS Virtual PC/Server.
Virtualization technology as such has become quite popular in organizations
these days. Support for it on hardware will give it a further boost. So a
network administrator could now put multiple


on a single machine, with one for the user, another to do security checks, and
a third to do inventory, without taking a toll on the performance.

As you can imagine, the clock speed battles in CPUs are
long over. Now it’s all about adding other features into the CPU, not only for
higher performance, but

better manageability, security and power savings.

Overall, we’re seeing efforts from everyone in the
hardware industry to improve the end-user experience through better products,
which is a really good sign. The PC range for instance widened considerably this
year. We saw several vendors intorduce PCs in the 10-12K range. Another range
that was hot were MediaCenter based machines, which can act as a complete
entertainment center at home. Servers are also following a similar pattern, and
becoming more of a commodity than a special device. Today, you can go and pick
up an entry-level server for less than 60K.

We finally realized this year that while technology is
definitely important, its application is even more important, and we’ll see
that focus increase in the coming year.

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