In-depth: 2010 component review - a turning point

New technologies and components could transform the fortunes of the channel this year, writes Cliff Cheetham.

New technologies and components could transform the fortunes of the channel this year, writes Cliff Cheetham

There's no denying that 2009 was a tough year for everyone, with a global economic recession in full swing and, with most IT manufacturers' sales performance looking like the last actions of a lemming, the channel had very little cheer to about.

It's no surprise that everyone in the industry will be hoping and planning for a better 2010, although with R&D budgets being among the first to suffer in hard times, it will interesting to see if the pace of technological development can be maintained.

The launch of Windows 7 was a shot in the arm for struggling PC and component sales although many would argue that the sales gained from this was the result of a lot of XP users skipping a generation of operating system and it was pent up demand rather than incremental sale.

For the first time a new Windows version didn't require a huge increase in system performance to make it usable. In fact, with a little extra RAM most XP systems could handle the upgrade with no worries. Despite this it seems that the extensive Windows 7 marketing campaign paid off and people bought
Windows 7 and new hardware to go with it.

The other major new development during the past year was the rise of the net-top computer, usually Ion-powered with the form factor of an external CD-ROM. With enough grunt to run the majority of applications and price points well below that of existing lower power systems, they will certainly be a challenge to the established entry-level units.

Chip developments

So what does the traditional component-built system have to offer today's buyer? The obvious flexibility and standardisation apart, will the lack of R&D during 2009 affect the ability to deliver technology drivers consumers are used to seeing?

I'll start with the key components as they also cover most of the larger
brand names and the lion's share of the spend on any system.

Chip-making behemoth Intel has continued its dominance of the high-end and mainstream market despite attempting to confuse customers with another naming system. It has once again produced a significant increase in performance while pushing down overall power requirements.

An old favourite from the early 1990s 'Turbo mode' is back but it is now called Turbo Boost Technology; this time around some of the cores can be dynamically over-clocked to a higher frequency. This enables the processor to improve performance in applications which don't take advantage of all the available cores.

More interesting in its potential implications for Intel's competition is the new GPU and CPU technology where the graphics processor is integrated on the CPU die in the form of the new GMA HD graphics chip. It can certainly handle HD content easily enough and while not exactly a hard-core gamer's dream it is capable of handling the 'casual' games which are currently experiencing a huge rise in popularity.

I would argue that free online games are changing the way many people use their PCs, just take the reported 32 million users playing the free Facebook game Farmville - these users are potential new customers when the next version of their favourite pastoral pastime requires a little more grunt in the graphics department.

AMD, meanwhile, has struggled to match the Intel product and been largely confined to the entry level/budget-end of marketplace. It would seem that collaboration with ATI has produced far better results for the graphics side of the company. AMD certainly needs to bring something significant to the table to provide some genuine competition for Intel. Hopefully the $1bn Intel had to pay AMD will support the R&D budget needed to do just that.

So Intel sustains its dominance of the CPU market and is continuing its play for a slice of the graphics market. Despite the well reported failure of its Larrabee program, it is clear the Intel would like a slice of the  Nvidia/AMD (ATI) pie with the consumption of modern media being ever more graphical. It's also clear that Intel has recognised that more cores are not always the answer and that customers want the simple things done as quickly as the complicated ones.

Lack of competition in this key area will only ever benefit the market leader and not the market in general. One might think that this is an Intel fanboy extolling the virtues of his favourite chip-maker while pouring vinegar on the rival, but there is no hiding AMD's inability to properly compete at desktop level with its current offering.

Graphics processors

This brings us to the graphics market and once again Microsoft had a big hand in the current developments with the release DirectX11, the latest iteration of its graphics technology embedded into Windows 7 at launch back on October last year. In the constantly changing cycle of dominance ATI (AMD) had a brace of its new 5000 series products ready for the launch of Windows 7 to give it an exclusive in what can be the very profitable bleeding edge market of high-end gaming.

Although it didn't have an offering at launch, the expectation of  Nvidia being close on its heels with the new Fermi (GF100) cards made the race look very tight. In fact, it took Nvidia almost six months to release a DirectX11 product. Worse than that, the new Nvidia cards appear not to be able to match ATI's existing range.

Although it is clear that some performance is still available from the new hardware and a little driver optimisation could close the gap, I doubt ATI will feel the need to drop its pricing any time soon, unless it feels like increasing the pressure on a struggling Nvidia.

The new battleground for many components is power usage, with CPUs and graphics cards being the main culprits a lot of the focus has fallen on them. Certainly, Intel and AMD have made significant improvements across the board, although this is not yet a key selling point. ATI has raised the game with the last series of DirectX11 cards producing high-end performance without the increase in power consumption.

In fact, only Nvidia seems to be lagging behind the game with its latest high cards requiring significantly more juice than the AMD equivalent at full load.
How long now before your PC or laptop comes with an energy rating similar to fridges and washers? I'm fairly sure it's not that far away.

Motherboard changes

So we've got the expensive and high-profile products out of the way, what about motherboards, the bit that connects them all? Well it's a time of change for motherboards with lots of new technology and processors to accommodate.

With Intel moving from 755 to 1156 and 1366 socket sizes, the motherboard manufacturers have been busy bringing out new models and chipsets to take advantage of the new processor technology. There are no worries for AMD users as it has managed to maintain a much more stable base and this, no doubt, has helped keep prices down in the entry-level market.

But key technologies are slowly being integrated in 2010 which means if you bought your motherboard in the past few months you might shortly be regretting it. With USB 3.0 Superspeed (4gbps) and SATA-3 (6gbps) technologies now being introduced at similar times, it will be interesting to see how the two standards live side by side. Certainly E-SATA looks under severe threat from the new USB standard, as it is easily capable of powering a much larger range of external devices.

The move to DDR3 for mainstream memory usage is now underway although shortages and dollar rates are currently keeping prices very high, which is potentially putting off people looking at upgrading in the short term.
With the new sockets, chipsets and technologies coming on to motherboards, expect to see prices remain higher than normal certainly for the early part of year, I don't expect to see any manufacturers looking to ditch potential ROI when they can maximise profits and with performance boards topping £200, there's a good slice of margin for all.

Storage issues

PC storage continues to be dominated by the good old hard disc, with 2Tbyte drives now readily available and coming away from the premium price point, although how many people actually need that much storage is debatable. The 2010 Steam survey shows 75% of users having less than 750Gbytes of storage, while almost 89% of them have up to 500Gbytes of that as free space.

Many of the manufacturers have realised that increased speed and green issues are alternatives to raw storage capacity and are pushing premium products in these niches. This is also where SSD products start to come up on the outside rail. SSDs are still relatively expensive at more than £2 per Gbyte of storage compared with less than 10p per Gbyte for traditional performance hard drives. However, with capacities generally expected to be between 400Gbytes and 600Gbytes by the end of 2010, they will become a more realistic proposal for general desktop use.

One development for storage is the potential for hybrid SSD/hard disc products that hold and manage data that is accessed often on the SSD and less used data is moved to the hard disc, to provide the best mix of storage and performance, also making better use of the smaller capacity of the SSD. Although this technology is yet to be proven, it is certainly a customer-centric view of current technology that could present a compelling offering.

For an industry driven by new technology, the optical market is something of a dinosaur with Blu-ray struggling to gain any market share, largely because of the price point. The 2010 Steam survey still shows that 97% of its users have a DVD-based optical storage device and, in theory, gaming orientated PC users push the upper boundaries of PC technology.

On a media basis, Blu-ray is still struggling to gain share, you can always tell this when the press release uses percentage growth and not percentage market share. Even new films where Blu-ray has its strongest offering, DVD still retains 88% of the sales, and with the huge back catalogue of movies mainly still on DVD, the format will remain with earlier adopters.

Potentially, the increase in downloadable content - legal and otherwise - also means that people are not recognising the value of the increased storage capacity of Blu-ray, and certainly aren't looking to watch HD movies on their PCs despite the push to native HD resolution monitors. For the time being it appears that Blu-ray share will be growing more organically.

Money makers

Most of the technological improvements we've seen so far this year have been the fruits of labour started well before the recession really hit.
With several new key technologies coming into the mainstream this year timed with new processor and graphics technologies - and allied to an overall reduction in power requirements - the drivers for new and replacement purchases are strong.

Potentially the technology that has the ability to deliver the most impact is USB 3.0 Superspeed. While USB has become an innocuous part of the computing experience, its plug-and-play simplicity combined with low cost and backwards compatibility has done a huge amount to standardise the products we sell.

The new faster speed means no more performance bottlenecks for the vast majority of peripherals and it carries more power to enable a wider range of devices now to be USB-powered. Once again, add backwards compatibility to take away any upgrade fears and you have a product that will quietly and without fuss present a whole range of incremental business across the consumer and B2B channels. 

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