Are Computers Still Getting Faster?
It looks like CES is starting to wind down, which makes sense because it ended three days ago. Now that we're mostly caught up, I found a new video from The 8-Bit Guy. He doesn't really explain any old technologies in this one. Instead, he poses an open question about computer speed. He was able to have a functional computing experience on a ten-year-old Apple laptop, which made him wonder if the rate of computer advancement is slowing down.
I believe that he (and his guest hosts) made great points, but also missed a few important ones.
One of his main arguments is that software seems to have slowed down relative to hardware. I don't believe that is true, but I believe it's looking in the right area. PCs these days are more than capable of doing just about anything in terms of 2D user interface that we would want to, and do so with a lot of overhead for inefficient platforms and sub-optimal programming (relative to the 80's and 90's at the very least). The areas that require extra horsepower are usually doing large batches of many related tasks. GPUs are key in this area, and they are keeping up as fast as they can, despite some stagnation with fabrication processes and a difficulty (at least before HBM takes hold) in keeping up with memory bandwidth.
For the last five years to ten years or so, CPUs have been evolving toward efficiency as GPUs are being adopted for the tasks that need to scale up. I'm guessing that AMD, when they designed the Bulldozer architecture, hoped that GPUs would have been adopted much more aggressively, but even as graphics devices, they now have a huge effect on Web, UI, and media applications.
These are also tasks that can scale well between devices by lowering resolution (and so forth). The primary thing that a main CPU thread needs to do is figure out the system's state and keep the graphics card fed before the frame-train leaves the station. In my experience, that doesn't scale well (although you can sometimes reduce the amount of tracked objects for games and so forth). Moreover, it is easier to add GPU performance, compared to single-threaded CPU, because increasing frequency and single-threaded IPC should be more complicated than planning out more, duplicated blocks of shaders. These factors combine to give lower-end hardware a similar experience in the most noticeable areas.
So, up to this point, we discussed:
- Software is often scaling in ways that are GPU (and RAM) limited.
- CPUs are scaling down in power more than up in performance.
- GPU-limited tasks can often be approximated with smaller workloads.
- Software gets heavier, but it doesn't need to be "all the way up" (ex: resolution).
- Some latencies are hard to notice anyway.
Back to the Original Question
This is where “Are computers still getting faster?” can be open to interpretation.
Tasks are diverging from one class of processor into two, and both have separate industries, each with their own, multiple goals. As stated, CPUs are mostly progressing in power efficiency, which extends (an assumed to be) sufficient amount of performance downward to multiple types of devices. GPUs are definitely getting faster, but they can't do everything. At the same time, RAM is plentiful but its contribution to performance can be approximated with paging unused chunks to the hard disk or, more recently on Windows, compressing them in-place. Newer computers with extra RAM won't help as long as any single task only uses a manageable amount of it -- unless it's seen from a viewpoint that cares about multi-tasking.
In short, computers are still progressing, but the paths are now forked and winding.
Subject: Graphics Cards, Processors | January 9, 2016 - 07:00 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: ubisoft, quad-core, pc gaming, far cry primal, dual-core
If you remember back when Far Cry 4 launched, it required a quad-core processor. It would block your attempts to launch the game unless it detected four CPU threads, either native quad-core or dual-core with two SMT threads per core. This has naturally been hacked around by the PC gaming community, but it is not supported by Ubisoft. It's also, apparently, a bad experience.
The follow-up, Far Cry Primal, will be released in late February. Oddly enough, it has similar, but maybe slightly lower, system requirements. I'll list them, and highlight the differences.
- 64-bit Windows 7, 8.1, or 10 (basically unchanged from 4)
- Intel Core i3-550 (down from i5-750)
- or AMD Phenom II X4 955 (unchanged from 4)
- 4GB RAM (unchanged from 4)
- 1GB NVIDIA GTX 460 (unchanged from 4)
- or 1GB AMD Radeon HD 5770 (down from HD 5850)
- 20GB HDD Space (down from 30GB)
- Intel Core i7-2600K (up from i5-2400S)
- or AMD FX-8350 (unchanged from 4)
- 8GB of RAM (unchanged from 4)
- NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 (up from GTX 680)
- or AMD Radeon R9 280X (down from R9 290X)
While the CPU is interesting, the opposing directions of the recommended GPU is fascinating. Either the parts are within Ubisoft's QA margin of error, or they increased the GPU load, but were able to optimize AMD better than Far Cry 4, which was a net gain in performance (and explains the slight bump in CPU power required to feed the extra content). Of course, either way is just a guess.
Back on the CPU topic though, I would be interested to see the performance of Pentium Anniversary Edition parts. I wonder whether they removed the two-thread lock, and, especially if hacks are still required, whether it is playable anyway.
That is, in a month and a half.
Subject: Graphics Cards, Processors | January 8, 2016 - 02:38 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: Intel, kaby lake, linux, mesa
Quick post about something that came to light over at Phoronix. Someone noticed that Intel published a handful of PCI device IDs for graphics processors to Mesa and libdrm. It will take a few months for graphics drivers to catch up, although this suggests that Kaby Lake will be releasing relatively soon.
It also gives us hints about what Kaby Lake will be. Of the published batch, there will be six tiers of performance: GT1 has five IDs, GT1.5 has three IDs, GT2 has six IDs, GT2F has one ID, GT3 has three IDs, and GT4 has four IDs. Adding them up, we see that Intel plans 22 GPU devices. The Phoronix post lists what those device IDs are, but that is probably not interesting for our readers. Whether some of those devices overlap in performance or numbering is unclear, but it would make sense given how few SKUs Intel usually provides. I have zero experience in GPU driver development.
Subject: Processors, Mobile | January 6, 2016 - 10:56 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: xiaomi, Intel, atom
So this rumor cites anonymous source(s) that leaked info to Digitimes. That said, it aligns with things that I've suspected in a few other situations. We'll discuss this throughout the article.
Xiaomi, a popular manufacturer of mobile devices, are breaking into the laptop space. One model was spotted on pre-order in China with an Intel Core i7 processor. According to the aforementioned leak, Intel has agreed to bundle an additional Intel Atom processor with every Core i7 that they order. Use Intel in a laptop, and they can use Intel in an x86-based tablet for no additional cost.
A single grain of salt... ...
Image Source: Wikipedia
While it's not an explicit practice, we've been seeing hints of similar initiatives for years now. A little over a year ago, Intel's mobile group reported revenues that are ~$1 million, which are offset by ~$1 billion in losses. We would also see phones like the ASUS ZenFone 2, which has amazing performance at a seemingly impossible $199 / $299 price point. I'm not going to speculate on what the actual relationships are, but it sounds more complicated than a listed price per tray.
And that's fine, of course. I know comments will claim the opposite, either that x86 is unsuitable for mobile devices or alleging that Intel is doing shady things. In my view, it seems like Intel has products that they believe can change established mindsets if given a chance. Personally, I would be hesitant to get an x86-based developer phone, but that's because I would only want to purchase one and I'd prefer to target the platform that the majority has. It's that type of inertia that probably frustrates Intel, but they can afford to compete against it.
It does make you wonder how long Intel plans to make deals like this -- again, if they exist.
Follow all of our coverage of the show at http://pcper.com/ces!
Subject: Processors | December 28, 2015 - 09:03 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: optical, photonics
A typical integrated circuit pushes electrical voltage across pathways, with transistors and stuff modifying it. When you interpret those voltages as mathematical values and logical instructions, then congratulations, you have created a processor, memory, and so forth. You don't need to use electricity for this. In fact, the history of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace was their attempts to perform computation on mechanical state.
Image Credit: University of Colorado
Chip contains optical (left) and electric (top and right) circuits.
One possible follow-up is photonic integrated circuits. This routes light through optical waveguides, rather than typical electric traces. The prototype made by University of Colorado Boulder (and UC Berkeley) seem to use photonics just to communicate, and an electrical IC for the computation. The advantage is high bandwidth, high density, and low power.
This sort of technology was being investigated for several years. My undergraduate thesis for Physics involved computing light transfer through defects in a photonic crystal, using it to create 2D waveguides. With all the talk of silicon fabrication coming to its limits, as 14nm transistors are typically made of around two-dozen atoms, this could be a new direction to innovate.
And honestly, wouldn't you want to overclock your PC to 400+ THz? Make it go plaid for ludicrous speed. (Yes, this paragraph is a joke.)
Subject: Processors | December 28, 2015 - 07:00 AM | Sebastian Peak
Tagged: skylake-u, Skylake, mobile cpu, Intel, desktop cpu, core i7, core i5, core i3, Broadwell
As reported by CPU World Intel has added a total of eight new processors to the 5th-gen “Broadwell” and 6th-gen “Skylake” CPU lineups, with new mobile and desktop models appearing in Intel’s price lists. The models include Core and Celeron, and range from dual core (five with Hyper-Threading) to a new quad-core i5:
Chart of new Intel models from CPU-World
“Intel today added 8 new Broadwell- and Skylake-based microprocessors to the official price list. New CPUs have unusual model numbers, like i5-6402P and i5-5200DU, which indicates that they may have different feature-set than the mainstream line of desktop and mobile CPUs. Intel also introduced today Celeron 3855U and 3955U ultra-low voltage models.”
It is unclear if the desktop models (Core i3-6098P, Core i5-6402P) listed with enter the retail channel, or if they are destined for OEM applications. The report points out these models have a P suffix “that was used to signify the lack of integrated GPU in older generations of Core i3/i5 products. There is a good chance that it still means just that”.
May the Radeon be with You
In celebration of the release of The Force Awakens as well as the new Star Wars Battlefront game from DICE and EA, AMD sent over some hardware for us to use in a system build, targeted at getting users up and running in Battlefront with impressive quality and performance, but still on a reasonable budget. Pairing up an AMD processor, MSI motherboard, Sapphire GPU with a low cost chassis, SSD and more, the combined system includes a FreeSync monitor for around $1,200.
Holiday breaks are MADE for Star Wars Battlefront
Though the holiday is already here and you'd be hard pressed to build this system in time for it, I have a feeling that quite a few of our readers and viewers will find themselves with some cash and gift certificates in hand, just ITCHING for a place to invest in a new gaming PC.
The video above includes a list of components, the build process (in brief) and shows us getting our gaming on with Star Wars Battlefront. Interested in building a system similar the one above on your own? Here's the hardware breakdown.
|AMD Powered Star Wars Battlefront System|
|Processor||AMD FX-8370 - $197
Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO - $29
|Motherboard||MSI 990FXA Gaming - $137|
|Memory||AMD Radeon Memory DDR3-2400 - $79|
|Graphics Card||Sapphire NITRO Radeon R9 380X - $266|
|Storage||SanDisk Ultra II 240GB SSD - $79|
|Case||Corsair Carbide 300R - $68|
|Power Supply||Seasonic 600 watt 80 Plus - $69|
|Monitor||AOC G2460PF 1920x1080 144Hz FreeSync - $259|
|Total Price||Full System (without monitor) - Amazon.com - $924|
For under $1,000, plus another $250 or so for the AOC FreeSync capable 1080p monitor, you can have a complete gaming rig for your winter break. Let's detail some of the specific components.
AMD sent over the FX-8370 processor for our build, a 4-module / 8-core CPU that runs at 4.0 GHz, more than capable of handling any gaming work load you can toss at it. And if you need to do some transcoding, video work or, heaven forbid, school or productivity work, the FX-8370 has you covered there too.
For the motherboard AMD sent over the MSI 990FXA Gaming board, one of the newer AMD platforms that includes support for USB 3.1 so you'll have a good length of usability for future expansion. The Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO cooler was our selection to keep the FX-8370 running smoothly and 8GB of AMD Radeon DDR3-2133 memory is enough for the system to keep applications and the Windows 10 operating system happy.
Subject: Processors | December 11, 2015 - 02:08 PM | Sebastian Peak
Tagged: Skylake, overclocking, Intel, Core i3-6100, bios, BCLK, asrock
The days of Intel overclocking being limited to their more expensive unlocked parts appear to be over, as TechSpot has posted benchmarks from an overclocked Intel Core i3-6100 using a new (pre-release) BIOS update from ASRock.
Image credit: TechSpot
"In overclocking circles it was recently noted that BCLK (base clock) overclocking might become a possibility in Skylake processors. Last night Asrock contacted us with an updated BIOS that enabled this. We jumped at the opportunity and have already tested and benched a Core i3-6100 Skylake CPU with a 1GHz overclock (4.7GHz) on air cooling."
The 1.0 GHz overclock was achieved with a 127 MHz base clock on the i3 processor, with a vcore of ~1.36v. Apparently the ASRock motherboard requires the processor's graphics portion to be disabled for overclocking with this method, and TechSpot used an NVIDIA GTX 960 for test system. The results were impressive, as you might imagine.
The following is a small sampling of the benchmark results available from the sourced TechSpot article:
Image credit: TechSpot
Image credit: TechSpot
The overclocked i3-6100 was able to come very close to the multi-threaded performance of the stock AMD FX-8320E (8-core) processor in Cinebench, with double the per-thread performance. Results from their Handbrake encode test were even better, with the overclocked i3-6100 essentially matching the performance of the Core i5-4430 processor tested.
Gaming was underwhelming, with very similar performance from the GTX 960 from all CPUs at the settings tested.
Image credit: TechSpot
So what did the article say about this new overclocking-friendly BIOS availability? "We are told this updated BIOS for their Z170 motherboards will be available to owners very soon." It will be interesting to see if other vendors offer the same, as there are results out there using a SuperMicro board as well.
Subject: Graphics Cards, Processors | December 8, 2015 - 08:07 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: hsa, GCC, amd
Phoronix, the Linux-focused hardware website, highlighted patches for the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) that implement HSA. This will allow newer APUs, such as AMD's Carrizo, to accelerate chunks of code (mostly loops) that have been tagged with a precompiler flag as valuable to be done on the GPU. While I have done some GPGPU development, many of the low-level specifics of HSA aren't areas that I have too much experience with.
The patches have been managed by Martin Jambor of SUSE Labs. You can see a slideshow presentation of their work on the GNU website. Even though features froze about a month ago, they are apparently hoping that this will make it into the official GCC 6 release. If so, many developers around the world will be able to target HSA-compatible hardware in the first half of 2016. Technically, anyone can do so regardless, but they would need to specifically use the unofficial branch on the GCC Subversion repository. This probably means compiling it themselves, and it might even be behind on a few features in other branches that were accepted into GCC 6.
Subject: Processors | December 4, 2015 - 11:35 PM | Sebastian Peak
Tagged: Skylake, Intel, heatsink, damage, cpu cooler, Core i7 6700K, Core i7 6600K, bend, 6th generation, 3rd party
Some Intel 6th-gen "Skylake" processors have been damaged by the heatsink mounts of 3rd-party CPU coolers according to a report that began with pcgameshardware.de and has since made its rounds throughout PC hardware media (including the sourced Ars Technica article).
The highly-referenced pcgameshardware.de image of a bent Skylake CPU
The problem is easy enough to explain, as Skylake has a notably thinner construction compared to earlier generations of Intel CPUs, and if enough pressure is exerted against these new processors the green substrate can bend, causing damage not only to the CPU but the pins in the LGA 1151 socket as well.
The only way to prevent the possibility of a bend is avoid overtightening the heatsink, but considering most compatible coolers on the market were designed for Haswell and earlier generations of Intel CPU this leaves users to guess what pressure might be adequate without potentially bending the CPU.
Intel has commented on the issue:
"The design specifications and guidelines for the 6th Gen Intel Core processor using the LGA 1151 socket are unchanged from previous generations and are available for partners and 3rd party manufacturers. Intel can’t comment on 3rdparty designs or their adherence to the recommended design specifications. For questions about a specific cooling product we must defer to the manufacturer."
It's worth noting that while Intel states that their "guidelines for the 6th Gen Intel Core processor using the LGA 1151 socket are unchanged from previous generations", it is specifically a change in substrate thickness that has caused the concerns. The problem is not limited to any specific brands, but certainly will be more of an issue for heatsink mounts that can exert a tremendous amount of pressure.
An LGA socket damaged from a bent Skylake CPU (credit: pcgameshardware)
From the Ars report:
"Noctua, EK Water Blocks, Scythe, Arctic, Thermaltake, and Thermalright, commenting to Games Hardware about the issue, suggested that damage from overly high mounting pressure is most likely to occur during shipping or relocation of a system. Some are recommending that the CPU cooler be removed altogether before a system is shipped."
Scythe has been the first vendor to offer a solution to the issue, releasing this statement on their support website:
"Japanese cooling expert Scythe announces a change of the mounting system for Skylake / Socket 1151 on several coolers of its portfolio. All coolers are compatible with Skylake sockets in general, but bear the possibility of damage to CPU and motherboard in some cases where the PC is exposed to strong shocks (e.g. during shipping or relocation).This problem particularly involves only coolers which will mounted with the H.P.M.S. mounting system. To prevent this, the mounting pressure has been reduced by an adjustment of the screw set. Of course, Scythe is going to ship a the new set of screws to every customer completely free of charge! To apply for the free screw set, please send your request via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or use the contact form on our website."
The thickness of Skylake (left) compared to Haswell (right) (credit: pcgameshardware)
As owner of an Intel Skylake i5-6600K, which I have been testing with an assortment of CPU coolers for upcoming reviews, I can report that my processor appears to be free of any obvious damage. I am particularly careful about pressure when attaching a heatsink, but there have been a couple (including the above mentioned Scythe HPMS mounting system) that could easily have been tightened far beyond what was needed for a proper connection.
We will continue to monitor this situation and update as more vendors offer their response to the issue.