Monday, May 08, 2006

Intel gets Back on Track

Last summer, I observed that computers consume a whole lot of power, and in particular that desktop computers burn through electricity like it is free, while laptops are much more efficient.

At the heart of this divergence is a decision Intel made about 15 years ago, to try to maintain its lead in microprocessors primarily by accelerating clock speed. Power consumption goes up something like the square of clock speed; so Intel's processor decision locked in a 15 year trend towards increasing power consumption on desktop PC's.

But along the line, Intel split its product line. They delegated an older architecture determined to have limited potential for increasing clock speed to mobile processors, the line that is currently dubbed the Pentium M series. In this line of chips, Intel put power consumption as its highest priority (while trying to improve performace as well), and lo and behold, after a few iterations, Intel figured out how to get similar performace out of these lowly slow-clock chips as they can get from their souped-up hyper-clocked, consume power like it is going out of style chips.

For the past few years, AMD has been catching up with Intel on performance - some say exceeding Intel's performance - using somewhat slower clocked chips. Intel, meanwhile, hit a wall on clock speed, because consuming more power (square of the performance gain) creates a lot of heat, and you have to get more and more sophisticated about how you get that heat away from the processor (and into your air-conditioned building).

The press attributes Intel's lackadasical performance not to this abandon efficiency if it gives a boost to clock speed decision in the CPU wars, but rather to a maturing company in need of restructuring. But the real restructuring Intel needed was to recognize that they went down the wrong path in the clock speed wars.

And today, Intel's new procuct line announces a new line of more efficient dual-core processors that increase performace per kilowatt consumed.

I suspect Intel's recovery is under way.


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