The Low-Power Revolution

An interesting trend has been emerging over the past few years, as computer chips scale out rather than up. By scaling out, I mean that chip designers are adding more cores rather than increasing the clock frequency. Where we used to have single-core processors clocked at two to four gigahertz, now we have two and four-brain processors running at essentially the same speeds. The new processors, however, are a lot faster than the older chips, even at the same clock speed. Technologies such as hyperthreading make it is possible to do up to 60% more work at the same clock speed, and chip designers improve the efficiency of their designs with each subsequent revision. Furthermore, there have been significant optimizations in power usage. It is possible to shut down unused cores, drastically reducing the power required.

Why The Desktop Is On Its Way Out
The result is that even today's budget laptops ($4-500) have enough computing power for pretty much anyone. In fact, the only real reason to buy a desktop these days is to get a standalone graphics card (for maximal video game performance) or to support more than two displays at once. Apple is allegedly considering eliminating the Mac Pro, which is no surprise, because pretty much no one ever buys them (at $2500 for the base Mac Pro, you might as well just buy a souped up 17" Macbook Pro or 27" iMac). Within a few generations, I'm going to bet that the state of computing has advanced to the point where there is no point in buying a non-portable computer.

This is a classic case of disruptive technology. You can buy a cheaper and faster computer if you get a desktop, but a laptop is good enough for most people's needs. I can now get a laptop that supports nearly any use case I could imagine. Eventually, no one will need desktops any more, and the market for them will drop off (this is already happening, as more laptops have been sold than desktops since around 2008). You will always be able to find a desktop for specialized purposes, just like you can still buy a mainframe if you really need one.

PCs Are Next To Go
So the desktop is on its way out - what's next. Well, I'm going to guess that the PC platform will be next. ARM and Microsoft recently released a bombshell - Windows 8 will run on ARM processors. Yes, those same chips that power your smartphone will soon be running Windows (and the same Windows that you run on your desktop, not some cut-down version designed for the phone). This started out as an attempt to create cheap and power-efficient Windows tablets, but I predict that this is a harbinger of things to come. Within a few years, your smartphone processing platform will be powerful enough to do pretty much anything that you could want to do with your current PC. But, most importantly, it will do that much more efficiently (sorry Intel).

As furious as the innovation has been in the PC realm, things have progressed even faster in the mobile space. Mobile platforms are notoriously power-constrained - where you can get by with a PC processor that dissipates 95W of power, the Tegra 2 processor dissipates only 2W (there are complete Tegra-based systems that consume only 3W). While Intel and AMD have been fighting for the speed crown, mobile manufacturers have been going for something even more important - efficiency. Hitting decent performance with a low-power device requires some pretty amazing wizardry from chip designers. Despite this, we are seeing two-core chips in most new smartphones and tables, and quad core will be the norm by the middle of 2012. NVidia recently released its first quad-core ARM chip (Tegra 3), and the other manufacturers (Samsung, Qualcomm and TI) have already announced their new designs. For the first time, we have a chip that nears desktop performance, but when in full-on power savings mode, uses a tiny fraction of the power.

What Will This Look Like?
So what are we going to do with these chips? You have a powerful chip, but when mated to a four-inch display, you aren't going to be able to get much real work done. I see two potential use cases, both of which are currently on the market in early forms. The first is the convertible tablet, a tablet that converts into a laptop. Asus introduced this form factor with the Transformer. You use it like any 10" Android tablet, but when you want it to become a full-fledged computer, you plug in the dock, and you get a laptop form factor (complete with keyboard and trackpad). The Transformer Prime, announced last week, marries this technology to a quad-core Tegra3 processor. Initial reviews are pretty good, and while it isn't cheap ($650 for the package with the tablet and dock), it seems like the wave of the future, especially running Windows 8 or a future version of Android that truly supports the laptop use case (prices will decline as the technology matures and volumes increase). 

The second use case is what Motorola calls the "Webtop." Basically, you plug your smartphone into a laptop dock to turn it into a laptop. The initial implementation, released earlier this year, was pretty half-baked. While the hardware was pretty top-notch, the software support just wasn't there. It pretty much allowed you to run Android applications in a Window and a desktop version of Firefox (compiled for ARM processors). I'm going to postulate that future versions of Android (and possibly Windows Phone) will switch seamlessly from phone to desktop form factor. Just like I can now plug a 30" display into my 13" Macbook, in the future I will do the same with my phone or tablet.

Overall, I'm sure that there will be a lot of improvement to the software and hardware, but these hybrid devices are only the beginning. Low-power chips will allow us to use computing power in drastically different ways than we currently do. While at first we will enable multiple current use cases with a single device, eventually the lines will be blurred, and you will be able to seamlessly use smart computing power in pretty much aspect of your life. At some point we will sever the physical connection - imagine being able to use your smartphone to point at and control pretty much any electronic device in your house.

The future is looking pretty bright, but we need to move off legacy power-hungry and expensive devices, cut the cord, and embrace the low-power revolution.

2 responses
I have been longing for the day, when I can carry my "computer" around in my pocket and simply hook it up to different workstations.

I honestly look at the Raspberry PI and see some vision of the future. Not because the Raspberry is fast, but because of the size.

"A computer", viewed externally, need not be much more than a power jack, a network jack, an HDMI jack and a USB jack (or two). Honestly, a portable computer doesn't even need a screen. It's just a mini box.

Picture a tablet as simply being something into which you plug your "mini" :)

I like your future and I very much look forward to it (though I'll probably have a desktop sitting in two decades, home server :)

I see the future going this way too.

I like the idea of the base unit (maybe smart phone, maybe something even more basic) being a port server.

But how passive (power friendly) can those ports be? Can the host devices (display, keyboard, etc) supply the power making the base unit more of a client?