All | Editorial | General Tech | Graphics Cards | Networking | Motherboards | Cases and Cooling | Processors | Chipsets | Memory | Displays | Systems | Storage | Mobile | Shows and Expos
Taking an Accurate Look at SSD Write Endurance
Last year, I posted a rebuttal to a paper describing the future of flash memory as ‘bleak’. The paper went through great (and convoluted) lengths to paint a tragic picture of flash memory endurance moving forward. Yesterday a newer paper hit Slashdot – this one doing just the opposite, and going as far as to assume production flash memory handling up to 1 Million erase cycles. You’d think that since I’m constantly pushing flash memory as a viable, reliable, and super-fast successor to Hard Disks (aka 'Spinning Rust'), that I’d just sit back on this one and let it fly. After all, it helps make my argument! Well, I can’t, because if there are errors published on a topic so important to me, it’s in the interest of journalistic integrity that I must now post an equal and opposite rebuttal to this one – even if it works against my case.
First I’m going to invite you to read through the paper in question. After doing so, I’m now going to pick it apart. Unfortunately I’m crunched for time today, so I’m going to reduce my dissertation into the form of some simple bulleted points:
- Max data write speed did not take into account 8/10 encoding, meaning 6Gb/sec = 600MB/sec, not 750MB/sec.
- The flash *page* size (8KB) and block sizes (2MB) chosen more closely resemble that of MLC parts (not SLC – see below for why this is important).
- The paper makes no reference to Write Amplification.
Perhaps the most glaring and significant is that all of the formulas, while correct, fail to consider the most important factor when dealing with flash memory writes – Write Amplification.
Before geting into it, I'll reference the excellent graphic that Anand put in his SSD Relapse piece:
SSD controllers combine smaller writes into larger ones in an attempt to speed up the effective write speed. This falls flat once all flash blocks have been written to at least once. From that point forward, the SSD must play musical chairs with the data on each and every small write. In a bad case, a single 4KB write turns into a 2MB write. For that example, Write Amplification would be a factor of 500, meaning the flash memory is cycled at 500x the rate calculated in the paper. Sure that’s an extreme example, but the point is that without referencing amplification at all, it is assumed to be a factor of 1, which would only be the case if you were only writing 2MB blocks of data to the SSD. This is almost never the case, regardless of Operating System.
After posters on Slashdot called out the author on his assumptions of rated P/E cycles, he went back and added two links to justify his figures. The problem is that the first links to a 2005 data sheet for 90nm SLC flash. Samsung’s 90nm flash was 1Gb per die (128MB). The packages were available with up to 4 dies each, and scaling up to a typical 16-chip SSD, that only gives you an 8GB SSD. Not very practical. That’s not to say 100k is an inaccurate figure for SLC endurance. It’s just a really bad reference to use is all. Here's a better one from the Flash Memory Summit a couple of years back:
The second link was a 2008 PR blast from Micron, based on their proposed pushing of the 34nm process to its limits. “One Million Write Cycles” was nothing more than a tag line for an achievement accomplished in a lab under ideal conditions. That figure was never reached in anything you could actually buy in a SATA SSD. A better reference would be from that same presentation at the Summit:
This shows larger process nodes hitting even beyond 1 million cycles (given sufficient additional error bits used for error correction), but remember it has to be something that is available and in a usable capacity to be practical for real world use, and that’s just not the case for the flash in the above chart.
At the end of the day, manufacturers must balance cost, capacity, and longevity. This forces a push towards smaller processes (for more capacity per cost), with the limit being how much endurance they are willing to give up in the process. In the end they choose based on what the customer needs. Enterprise use leans towards SLC or eMLC, as they are willing to spend more for the gain in endurance. Typical PC users get standard MLC and now even TLC, which are *good enough* for that application. It's worth noting that most SSD failures are not due to burning out all of the available flash P/E cycles. The vast majority are due to infant mortality failures of the controller or even due to buggy firmware. I've never written enough to any single consumer SSD (in normal operation) to wear out all of the flash. The closest I've come to a flash-related failure was when I had an ioDrive fail during testing by excessive heat causing a solder pad to lift on one of the flash chips.
All of this said, I’d love to see a revisit to the author’s well-structured paper – only based on the corrected assumptions I’ve outlined above. *That* is the type of paper I would reference when attempting to make *accurate* arguments for SSD endurance.
Windows RT: Runtime? Or Get Up and Run Time?
Update #1, 10/26/2012: Apparently it does not take long to see the first tremors of certification woes. A Windows developer by the name of Jeffrey Harmon allegedly wrestled with Microsoft certification support 6 times over 2 months because his app did not meet minimum standards. He was not given clear and specific reasons why -- apparently little more than copy/paste of the regulations he failed to achieve. Kind-of what to expect from a closed platform... right? Imagine if some nonsensical terms become mandated or other problems crop up?
Also, Microsoft has just said they will allow PEGI 18 games which would have received an ESRB M rating. Of course their regulations can and will change further over time... the point is the difference between a store refusing to carry versus banishing from the whole platform even for limited sharing. The necessity of uproars, especially so early on and so frequently, should be red flags for censorship to come. Could be for artistically-intentioned nudity or sexual themes. Could even be not about sex, language, and violence at all.
Last month, I suggested that the transition to Windows RT bares the same hurdles as transitioning to Linux. Many obstacles blocking our path, like Adobe and PC gaming, are considering Linux; the rest have good reason to follow.
This month we receive Windows RT and Microsoft’s attempt to shackle us to it: Windows 8.
To be clear: Microsoft has large incentives to banish the legacy of Windows. The way Windows 8 is structured reduces it to a benign tumorous growth atop Windows RT. The applications we love and the openness we adore are contained to an app.
I will explain how you should hate this -- after I explain why and support it with evidence.
Microsoft is currently in the rare state of sharp and aggressive focus to a vision. Do not misrepresent this as greed: it is not. Microsoft must face countless jokes about security and stability. Microsoft designed Windows with strong slants towards convenience over security.
That ideology faded early into the life of Windows XP. How Windows operates is fundamentally different. Windows machines are quite secure, architecturally. Con-artists are getting desperate. Recent attacks are almost exclusively based on fear and deception of the user. Common examples are fake anti-virus software or fraudulent call center phone calls. We all win when attackers get innovative: survival of the fittest implies death of the weakest.
And Why the Industry Misses the Point
I am going to take a somewhat unpopular stance: I really like stereoscopic 3D. I also expect to change your mind and get you excited about stereoscopic 3D too - unless of course a circumstance such as monovision interferes with your ability to see 3D at all. I expect to accomplish where the industry has failed simply because I will not ignore the benefits of 3D in my explanation.
Firstly - we see a crisp image when our brain is more clearly able to make out objects in a scene.
We typically have two major methods of increasing the crispness of an image: we either increase the resolution or we increase the contrast of the picture. As resolution increases we receive a finer grid of positional information to place and contain the objects in the scene. As contrast increases we receive a wider difference between the brightest points and the darkest points from a scene which prevents objects from blending together in a mess of grey.
We are also able to experience depth information by comparing the parallax effect across both of our eyes. We are able to encapsulate each object into a 3D volume and position each capsule a more defined distance apart. Encapsulated objects appear crisper because we can more clearly see them as sharply defined independent objects.
Be careful with this stereoscopic 3D image. To see the 3D effect you must slowly cross your eyes until the two images align in the center. This should only be attempted by adults with fully developed eyes and without prior medical conditions. Also, sit a comfortable distance away so you do not need to cross your eyes too far inward and rest your eyes until they no longer feel strained. In short - do not pull an eye muscle or something. Use common sense. Also move your mouse cursor far away from the image as it will break your focusing lock and click on the image to make it full sized.
Again, be careful when crossing your eyes to see stereoscopic 3D and relax them when you are done.
The above image is a scene from Unreal Tournament 3 laid out in a cross-eyed 3D format. If you are safely able to experience the 3D image then I would like you to pay careful attention to how crisp the 3D image appeared. Compare this level of crispness to either the left or right eye image by itself.
Which has the crisper picture quality?
That is basically why 3D is awesome: it makes your picture quality appear substantially better by giving your brain more information about the object. This effect can also play with how the brain perceives the world you present it: similar to how HDR tonal mapping plays with exposure ranges we cannot see and infrared photography plays with colors we cannot see to modify the photograph - which we can see - for surreal effects.
Or: the countdown to a fresh Start.
Over time – and not necessarily much of it – usage of a platform can become a marriage. I trusted Windows, nee MS-DOS, guardianship over all of my precious applications which depend upon it. Chances are you too have trusted Microsoft or a similar proprietary platform holder to provide a household for your content.
It is time for a custody hearing.
These are the reasons why I still use Windows – and who could profit as home wreckers.
1st Reason – Games
The most obvious leading topic.
Computer games have been dominated by Windows for quite some time now. When you find a PC game at retail or online you will find either a Windows trademark or the occasional half-eaten fruit somewhere on the page or packaging.
One of the leading reasons for the success of the PC platform is the culture of backwards compatibility. Though the platform has been rumored dead ad-infinitum it still exists – surrounded by a wasteland of old deprecated consoles. I still play games from past decades on their original platform.
I say let the world go to hell
… but I should always have my tea. (Notes From Underground, 1864)
You can praise video games as art to justify its impact on your life – but do you really consider it art?
Best before the servers are taken down, because you're probably not playing it after.
Art allows the author to express their humanity and permits the user to consider that perspective. We become cultured when we experiment with and to some extent understand difficult human nature problems. Ideas are transmitted about topics which we cannot otherwise understand. We are affected positively as humans in society when these issues are raised in a safe medium.
Video games, unlike most other mediums, encourage the user to coat the creation with their own expressions. The player can influence the content through their dialogue and decision-tree choices. The player can accomplish challenges in their own unique way and talk about it over the water cooler. The player can also embed their own content as a direct form of expression. The medium will also mature as we further learn how to leverage interactivity to open a dialogue for these artistic topics in completely new ways and not necessarily in a single direction.
Consciously or otherwise – users will express themselves.
With all of the potential for art that the medium allows it is a shame that – time and time again – the industry and its users neuter its artistic capabilities in the name of greed, simplicity, or merely fear.
Most IT workers or computer enthusiasts tend to ‘accumulate’ computer and electronics gear over time. Over the years it is easy to end up with piles of old and outdated computer parts, components and electronics–whether it’s an old Pentium machine that your work was throwing out, RAM chips you no longer needed after your last upgrade, or an old CRT monitor that your cousin wasn’t sure what to do with. Tossing the accumulated hardware out with the next trash pickup doesn’t even enter the equation, because there’s that slight possibility you might need it someday.
I myself have one (or two, and maybe half an attic…) closet full of old stuff ranging from my old Commodore 64/1541 Floppy disk drive with Zork 5.25” floppies, to a set of four 30 pin 1 MB/70ns SIMM chips that cost $100 each as upgrades to my first 486 DX2/50 Mhz Compudyne PC back in 1989. (Yes, you read that right, $100 for 1 MB of memory.) No matter if you have it all crammed into one closet or spread all over your house, you likely have a collection of gear dating back to the days of punch cards, single button joysticks, and InvisiClues guides.
Occasionally I’ll look into my own closet and lament all the ‘wasted’ technology that resides there. I’m convinced much of the hardware still has some sparks of life left. As a result, I am always looking for a reason to revive some of it from the dead. Since they’ve already been bought and paid for, it feels almost blasphemous to the technology gods not to do something with the hardware. In some cases, it might not be worth the effort, (Windows Vista on an old Micron Transport Trek2 PII-300 laptop doesn’t end well for anyone). In others cases, you can build something fun or useful using parts that you have sitting around and are waiting for a new lease on life.
3+ Hours of discussion later...
The beginning of QuakeCon is always started by several hours of John Carmack talking about very technical things. This two hour keynote typically runs into the three to four hour range, and it was no different this time. John certainly has the gift of gab when it comes to his projects, but unlike others his gab is chock full of useful information, often quite beyond the understanding of those in the audience.
The first topic of discussion was that of last year’s Rage launch. John was quite apologetic about how it went, especially in terms of PC support. For a good portion of users out there, it simply would not work due to driver issues on the AMD side. The amount of lessons they learned from Rage were tremendous. iD simply cannot afford to release two games in one decade. Rage took some six plus years of development. Consider that Doom 3 was released in 2004, and we did not see Rage until Fall 2011. The technology in Rage is a big step up due to the use of iD Tech 5, and the art assets of the title are very impressive.
iD also made some big mistakes in how they have marketed the title. Many people were assuming that it would be a title more in line with Bethesda’s Fallout 3 with a lot of RPG type missions and storyline. Instead of a 80 hour title that one would expect, it was a 10+ hour action title. So marketing needs to create a better representation of what the game entails. They also need to stay a bit more focused on what they will be delivering, and be able to do so in a timely manner.
An HTPC Perspective on home theater PC technology
We conducted a reader survey a few weeks ago, and one of the tech topics that received a surprising amount of interest in was HTPC coverage. You, our awesome readers, wanted to know more about the hardware and software behind them. I’ll admit that I was ardent about the prospects of talking HTPCs with you. As a relatively new entrant to that area of tech myself, I was excited to cover it, and give you more coverage on a topic you wanted to see more of!
Today we won't be talking about home theater PCs in the sense of a computer in the living room AV rack (Ryan covered that earlier this week), but rather a related technology that makes the HTPC possible: the CableCARD-equipped TV tuner.
I will forewarn you that this article is quite a bit more informal than my usual writings, especially if you only follow my PC Perspective postings. In the future, it may not be that way, but I wanted to give some backstory and some personal thoughts on the matter to illustrate how I got into rolling my own DVR and why I’m excited about it (mainly: it saves money and is very flexible).
Despite my previous attempts to “cut the cord” and use only Internet-based services for television, me and my girlfriend slowly but surely made our way back to cable TV. For about a year we survived on Netflix, Hulu, and the various networks’ streaming videos on their respective websites but as the delays between a shows airing and web streaming availability increased and Netflix instant Streaming started losing content the price of cable started to look increasingly acceptable.
She was probably the first one to feel the effects of a lack of new content – especially with a newfound love for a rather odd show called True Blood. It was at some point thereafter, once she had caught up with as many seasons offered on Netflix of various shows as possible that she broke down and ordered U-Verse. U-Verse is an interesting setup of television delivery using internet protocol (IPTV). While we did have some issues at first with the Residential Gateway and signal levels, it was eventually sorted out and it was an okay setup. It offered a lot of channels – with many in HD. In the end though, after the promotional period was up, it got very expensive to stay subscribed to. Also, because it was IPTV, it was not as flexible as traditional cable as far as adding extra televisions and the DVR functionality. Further, the image quality for the HD streams, while much better than SD, was not up to par with the cable and satellite feeds I’ve seen.
Being with Comcast for Internet for about three years now, I’ve been fairly happy with it. One day I saw a promotion for currently subscribed customers for TV + Blast internet for $80, which was only about $20 more than I was paying each month for its Performance tier.
After a week of hell Therefore, I decided to sign up for it. Only, I did not want to rent a Comcast box, so I went searching for alternatives.
Enter the elusive and never advertised CableCARD
It was during this search that I learned a great deal about CableCARDs and the really cool things that they enabled. Thanks to the FCC, cable television providers in the United States have to give their customers an option other than renting a cable box for a monthly fee – customers have to be able to bring their own equipment if they wish (they can still charge you for the CableCARD but at a reduced rate, and not all cable companies charge a fee for them). But what is a CableCARD? In short, it is a small card that resembles a PCMIA expansion card – a connector that can commonly be found in older laptops (think Windows XP-era). It is to be paired with a CableCARD tuner and acts as the key to decrypt the encrypted television stations in your particular subscriber package. They are added much like a customer-owned modem is, by giving the cable company some numbers on the bottom of the card that act as a unique identifier. The cable company then connects that particular card to your account and sends it a profile of what channels you are allowed to tune into.
There are some drawbacks, however. Mainly that On Demand does not work with most CableCARDS. Do note that this is actually not a CableCARD hardware issue, but a support issue on the cable company side. You could, at least in theory, get a CableCARD and tuner that could tune in On Demand content, but right now that functionality seems to be limited to some Tivos and the rental cable boxes (paradoxically some of those are actually CableCARD-equipped). It’s an unfortunate situation, but here’s hoping that it is supported in the future. Also, if you do jump into the world of CableCARDs, it is likely that you will find yourself in a situation where you know more about them than the cable installer as cable companies do not advertise them, and only a small number of employees are trained on them. Don’t be too hard on the cable tech though, it's primarily because cable companies would rather rent you a (expensive) box, and a very small number of people actually know about and need a tech to support the technology. I was lucky enough to get one of the “CableCARD guys,” on my first install, but I’ve also gotten techs that have never seen one before and it made for an interesting conversation piece as they diagnosed signal levels for the cable modem (heh). Basically, patience is key when activating your CableCARD, and I highly recommend asking around forums like DSLReports for the specific number(s) to call to get to the tier 2 techs that are familiar with CableCARDs for your specific provider when calling to activate it if you opt to do a self-install. Even then, you may run into issues. For example, something went wrong with activation on the server side at Comcast so it took a couple of hours for them to essentially unlock all of my HD channels during my install.
Introduction, Hardware To Look For
Less Risk, Faster Product Development and Introduction
There have been quite a few articles lately about the upcoming Bulldozer refresh from AMD, but a lot of the information that they have posted is not new. I have put together a few things that seem to have escaped a lot of these articles, and shine a light on what I consider the most important aspects of these upcoming releases. The positive thing that most of these articles have achieved is increasing interest in AMD’s upcoming products, and what they might do for that company and the industry in general.
The original FX-8150 hopefully will only be a slightly embarrasing memory for AMD come Q3/Q4 of this year.
The current Bulldozer architecture that powers the AMD FX series of processors is not exactly an optimal solution. It works, and seems to do fine, but it does not surpass the performance of the previous generation Phenom II X6 series of chips in any meaningful way. Let us not mention how it compares to Intel’s Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge products. It is not that the design is inherently flawed or bad, but rather that it was a unique avenue of thought that was not completely optimized. The train of thought is that AMD seems to have given up on the high single threaded performance that Intel has excelled at for some time. Instead they are going for good single threaded performance, and outstanding multi-threaded performance. To achieve this they had to rethink how to essentially make the processor as wide as possible, keep the die size and TDP down to reasonable sizes, and still achieve a decent amount of performance in single threaded applications.
Bulldozer was meant to address this idea, and its success is debatable. The processor works, it shows up as an eight logical core processor, and it seems to scale well with multi-threading. The problem, as stated before, is that it does not perform like a next generation part. In fact, it is often compared to Intel’s Prescott, which was a larger chip on a smaller process than the previous Northwood processor, but did not outperform the earlier part in any meaningful way (except in heat production). The difference between Intel and AMD in this aspect is that as compared to Prescott, Bulldozer as an entirely new architecture as compared to the Prescott/Northwood lineage. AMD has radically changed the way it designs processors. Taking some lessons from the graphics arm of the company and their successful Radeon brand, AMD is applying that train of thought to processors.
Search engine giant Google took the wraps off its long rumored cloud storage service called Google Drive this week. The service has been rumored for years, but is (finally) official. In the interim, several competing services have emerged and even managed to grab significant shares of the market. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how Google’s service will stack up. In this article, we’ll be taking Google Drive on a test drive from installation to usage to see if it is a worthy competitor to other popular storage services—and whether it is worth switching to!
How we test
In order to test the service, I installed the Google desktop application (we’ll be taking a look at the mobile app soon) and uploaded a variety of media file types including documents, music, photos, and videos in numerous formats. The test system in question is an Intel i7 860 based system with 8GB of RAM and a wired Ethernet connection to the LAN. The cable ISP I used offers approximately two to three mpbs uploads (real world speeds, 4mbps promised) for those interested.
Google’s cloud service was officially unveiled on Tuesday, but the company is still rolling out activations for people’s accounts (my Google Drive account activated yesterday [April 27, 2012], for example). And it now represents the new single storage bucket for all your Google needs (Picasa, Gmail, Docs, App Inventor, ect; although people can grandfather themselves into the cheaper Picasa online storage).
Old Picasa Storage vs New Google Drive Storage Plans
|Storage Tier (old/new)||Old Plan Pricing (per year)||New Plan Pricing (per year)|
|20 GB/25 GB||$5||$29.88|
|80 GB/100 GB||$20||$59.88|
(Picasa Plans were so much cheaper–hold onto them if you're able to!)
The way Google Drive works is much like that of Dropbox wherein a single folder is synced between Google’s servers and the user’s local machine (though sub-folders are okay to use and the equivalent of "labels" on the Google side). The storage in question is available in several tiers, though the tier that most people will be interested in is the free one. On that front, Google Drive offers 5GB of synced storage, 10GB of Gmail storage, and 1GB of Picasa Web Albums photo backup space. Beyond that, Google is offering nine paid tiers from an additional 25GB of "Drive and Picasa" storage (and 25GB of Gmail email storage) for $2.49 a month to 16TB of Drive and Picasa Web Albums storage with 25GB of Gmail email storage for $799.99 a month. The chart below details all the storage tiers available.
|Storage Tiers||Drive/Picasa Storage||Gmail Storage||Price (per month)|
1024MB = 1GB, 1024GB = 1TB
The above storage numbers do not include the 5GB of free drive storage that is also applied to any paid tiers. The free 1GB of Picasa storage does not carry over to the paid tiers.
Even better, Google has not been stingy with their free storage. They continue to allow users to upload as many photos as they want to Google+ (they are resized to a max of 2048x2048 pixels though). Also, Google Documents stored in the Docs format continue to not count towards the storage quota. Videos uploaded to Google+ under 15 minutes in length are also free from storage limitations. As far as Picasa Web Albums (which also includes photos uploaded to blogger blogs) goes, any images under 2048x2048 and videos under 15 minutes in length do not count towards the storage quota either. If you exceed the storage limit, Google will still allow you to access all of your files, but you will not be able to create any new files until you delete enough files to get below the storage quota. The one exception to that rule is the “storage quota free” file types mentioned above–Google will still let you create/upload those. For Gmail storage, Google allows you to receive and store as much email as you want up to the quota. After you reach the quota, any new email will hard bounce and you will not be able to receive new messages.
In that same vein, Google’s paid tiers are not the cheapest but are still fairly economical. They are less expensive per GB than Dropbox, for example, but are more expensive than Microsoft’s new Skydrive tiers. One issue that many users face with online storage services is the file size limit placed on individual files. While Dropbox places no limits (other than overall storage quota) on individual file size, many other services do. Google offers a compromise to users in the form of 10GB per file size limits. While you won’t be backing up Virtualbox hard drives or drive image backups to Google, they’ll let you backup anything else (within reason).
Infectious fear is infectious
PCMag and others have released articles based on a blog post from Sophos. The original post discussed how frequently malware designed for Windows is found on Mac computers. What these articles mostly demonstrate is that we really need to understand security: what it is, and why it matters. The largest threats to security are complacency and misunderstanding; users need to grasp the problem rather than have it burried under weak analogies and illusions of software crutches.
Your data and computational ability can be very valuable to people looking to exploit it.
The point of security is not to avoid malware, nor is it to remove it if you failed to avoid it. Those actions are absolutely necessary components of security -- do those things -- but they are not the goal of security. The goal of security is to retain control of what is yours. At the same time, be a good neighbor and make it easier for others to do the same with what is theirs.
Your responsibility extends far beyond just keeping a current antivirus subscription.
The problem goes far beyond throwing stones...
The distinction is subtle.
Your operating system is irrelevant. You could run Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, the ‘nixes, or whatever else. Every useful operating system has vulnerabilities and run vulnerable applications. The user is also very often tricked into loading untrusted code either directly or delivering it within data to a vulnerable application.
Blindly fearing malware -- such as what would happen if someone were to draw parallels to Chlamydia -- does not help you to understand it. There are reasons why malware exists; there are certain things which malware is capable of; and there are certain things which malware is not.
The single biggest threat to security is complacency. Your information is valuable and you are responsible to prevent it from being exploited. The addition of a computer does not change the fundamental problem. Use the same caution on your computer and mobile devices as you should on the phone or in person. You would not leave your credit card information on a park bench unmonitored.
Introduction, Low-Power Computing Was Never Enjoyable
It was nearly five years ago that ASUS announced the first Eee PC model at Computex. That October the first production version of what would to be called a netbook, the ASUS Eee PC 4G, was released. The press latched on to the little Eee PC, making it the new darling of the computer industry. It was small, it was inexpensive, and it was unlike anything on the market.
Even so, the original Eee PC was a bit of a dead end. It used an Intel Celeron processor that was not suited for the application. It consumed too much power and took up a significant portion of the netbook’s production cost. If Intel’s Celeron had remained the only option for netbooks they probably would not have made the leap from press darling to mainstream consumer device.
It turned out that Intel (perhaps unintentionally) had the solution – Atom. Originally built with hopes that it might power “mobile Internet devices” it proved to be the netbook’s savior. It allowed vendors to squeeze out cheap netbooks with Windows and a proper hard drive.
At the time, Atom and the netbook seemed promising. Sales were great – consumers loved the cute, pint-sized, affordable computers. In 2009 netbook sales jumped by over 160% quarter-over-quarter while laptops staggered along with single-digit growth. The buzz quickly jumped to other products, spawning nettops, media centers and low-power all-in-one-PCs. There seemed to be nothing an Atom powered computer could not do.
Fast forward. Earlier this year, PC World ran an article asking if netbooks are dead. U.S. sales peaked in the first quarter of 2010 and have been nose-diving since then, and while some interest remains in the other markets, only central Europe and Latin America have held steady. It appears the star that burned brightest has indeed burned the quickest.
Get Out the Microscope
AMD announced their Q1 2012 earnings last week, which turned out better than the previous numbers suggested. The bad news is that they posted a net loss of $590 million. That does sound pretty bad considering that their gross revenue was $1.59 billion, but there is more to the story than meets the eye. Of course, there are thoughts of “those spendthrift executives are burying AMD again”, but this is not the case. The loss lays squarely on the GLOBALFOUNDRIES equity and wafer agreements that have totally been retooled.
To get a good idea of where AMD stands in Q1, and for the rest of this year, we need to see how all these numbers actually get sorted out. Gross revenue is down 6% from the quarter before, which is expected due to seasonal pressures. This is right in line with Intel’s seasonal downturn, and in ways AMD was affected slightly less than their larger competitor. They are down around 2% from last year’s quarter, and part of that can be attributed to the continuing hard drive shortage that continued to affect the previous quarter.
A paper, titled “The Bleak Future of NAND Flash Memory” was recently jointly published by the University of California and Microsoft Research. It has been picked up by many media outlets who all seem to be beating the same morbid drum, spinning tales of a seemingly apocalyptic end to the reign of flash-based storage devices. While I agree with some of what these authors have to say, I have reservations about the methods upon which the paper is based.
TLC and beyond?
The paper kicks off by declaring steep increases in latency and drops in lifetime associated with increases in bits-per-cell. While this is true, flash memory manufacturers are not making large pushes to increase bits-per-cell beyond the standard MLC (2 bits per cell) tech. Sure some have dabbled in 3-bit MLC, also called Triple Level Cell (TLC) which is a bit of a misnomer since storing three bits in a cell actually requires eight voltage level bands, not three as the name implies. Moving from SLC to MLC doubles density, but the diminishing returns increase sharply after that – MLC to TLC only increases capacity by a another 1.5x, but sees a 2-4x reduction in performance and endurance. In light of this, there is little demand for TLC flash, and where there is, it’s clear by the usage cases that it is not meant for anything beyond light usage. There's nothing wrong with the paper going down this road, but the reality is that increasing bits per cell is not the envelope being pushed by the flash memory industry.
Wait a second – where is 25nm MLC?
Looking at the above we see a glaring omission – 25nm MLC flash, which has been around for close to two years now, and constitutes the majority of shipping flash memory parts currently in production. SLC was also omitted, but I can see the reason for this – it’s hard to get your hands on 25nm SLC these days. Why? Because MLC technology has been improved upon to the point where ‘enterprise MLC’ (eMLC) is rapidly replacing SLC even despite the supposed reduction in reliability and endurance over SLC. The reasons for this are simple, and are completely sidestepped or otherwise overlooked by the paper:
- SSD controllers employ write combination and wear leveling techniques.
- Some controllers even compress data on-the-fly as to further reduce writes and provisioning.
- Controller-level Error Correction (ECC) has improved dramatically with each process shrink.
- SSD controllers can be programmed to compensate for the drift of data stored in a cell (eMLC).
Quarter Down but Year Up
Yesterday NVIDIA released their latest financial results for Q4 2012 and FY2012. There was some good and bad mixed in the results, but overall it was a very successful year for NVIDIA.
Q4 saw gross revenue top $953.2 million US with a net income of $116 million US. This is about $53 million less in gross revenue and $62 million down in net income as compared to last quarter. There are several reasons as to why this happened, but the majority of it appears to be due to the hard drive shortage affecting add-in sales. Simply put, the increase in hard drive prices caused most OEMs to take a good look at the price points of the entire system, and oftentimes would cut out the add-in graphics and just use integrated.
Tegra 3 promises a 50% increase in revenue for NVIDIA this coming year.
Two other reasons for the lower than expected quarter were start of the transition to 28 nm products based on Kepler. They are ramping up production on 28 nm and slowing down 40 nm. Yields on 28 nm are not where they expected them to be, and there is also a shortage of wafer starts for that line. This had a pretty minimal affect overall on Q4, but it will be one of the prime reasons why revenue looks like it will be down in Q1 2013.
Introduction, Thin Is Flimsy
If there was anything that can be pointed to as “the” thing CES was about, it’s the ultrabook. These thin and portable laptops were presented by Intel with all the finesse of a sledgehammer. Intel’s message is clear. Ultrabooks are here, and you’re going to like them.
Such a highly coordinated effort on the part of Intel is unusual. Sure, they’ve pushed industry standards before. But the company’s efforts have usually been focused on a specific technology, like USB. The last time Intel put serious effort into trying to change how system builders constructed their systems was when Intel pushed for the BTX form factor.
BTX was an attempt to address problems the company was having with its Pentium 4 processors, which tended to consume a lot of power and therefor run hot. The push for the ultrabook is also an attempt in address a (perceived) problem. In this case the issue at hand is portability, both in in terms physical system size and battery endurance.
Intel announced some interesting new smartphone and tablet reference designs at CES 2012. These are signs that the company is making headway in this area. But the products based on those reference designs aren’t out yet, and it will probably take a few years for Intel to gain significant market share even if it does manage to offer x86 processors that can beat ARM in smartphones and tablets. In the meantime, Intel needs to provide slim, responsive and portable systems that can distract consumers from tablets.
So we have the ultrabook.
Q4-2012 In a Nutshell
Tis the reporting season. Yes, that time of year when some of the major players in the computing world get together and tell us all how well they did this past quarter. Ok, so they do not necessarily get together to announce results, but they sure time them that way. Today was AMD’s turn (and Apple’s), and the results were not nearly as positive as what Intel had to offer a few days ago.
Q4 2011 was flat in terms of revenue as compared to Q3. The company had gross revenue of $1.69 billion and had a net income loss of $177 million. That net income is not necessarily a bad result, but more on that later. Margins rose to 46%, which is still a far cry from Intel’s 65% for the past quarter. Gross revenue was up 2% from last year, which considering the marketplace and Intel’s dominance, is a solid win for AMD.
When we start talking about non-GAAP results, AMD had a net income of $138 million. The difference between those two numbers (a loss vs. a nice profit) is that the loss came from one time writeoffs. AMD has lowered its stake in GLOBALFOUNDRIES to 8.8%, and in so doing incurred a hefty charge. This is not so much money lost as it is lost value in the company.
I got your $13.9 Billion over here...
Intel had a record quarter. Are we tired of hearing that yet? I guess that depends on who a person is investing with. Earlier this quarter Intel warned that their results could be negatively affected by the current hard drive shortage that we are experiencing. Apparently, this was a factor, but it did not stop Intel from still having a record quarter.
Q4 2011 turned out to be gangbusters for Intel. They reported gross revenue of $13.9 billion, which is significantly higher than the expected $13.74 billion analysts were predicting. Net income came in at $3.4 billion with an impressive 65.5% gross margin. The overall year was also record setting at $54 billion gross revenue and $12.9 billion net income. For comparison, AMD has a gross revenue of about $6.8 billion and a net income of around $300 million. 2010 was a record year for Intel in that they surpassed $40 billion in revenue for the first time in the company’s history, and this year saw revenue over $10 billion higher. Intel is certainly hitting their stride, and they do not look to slow down anytime soon.
Introduction: Griefing the grieving
PC Gaming has been on its death bed for years -- if you believe the countless debates that have occurred most commonly over the last decade. The drum beat roared from the masses: “Why game on the PC anymore when you could just buy a console?” The focus of conversation was set upon the attack and defense of the PC as a viable platform at all, let alone the platform of choice. The question that swarms naggingly through my brain is quite the opposite: “In the long run, why game on a console?” The concept that consoles are better than PCs, given a fraction of the support that consoles receive, is about to die; console supporters are in various levels of grief.
U mad Mario Bros.?
I am an avid, though this editorial may suggest livid, video game supporter. My first exposure to video gaming was mixed between the Nintendo Entertainment System and the family 80286. I have equally fond memories with the keyboard as with the gamepad. The balance between console and PC was level throughout my life until just a few years ago when I carefully thought the situation over. The PC is now my platform of choice.