Winter is here and I took advantage of a warm snap to change to my winter tires, with a softer compound and better tread for ice. $250 a tire and $250 a rim makes me wish unicycles would work for the little woman or that Moore’s Law applied to tires. Unfortunately, manufacture of things does benefit linearly from improved production and someone else gets all the profits in tires. In microelectronics things are much better. Every few years, the ability to make a structure in silicon or whatever improves 30% or so and details become 70% the size they were the year before. That means the area of things like transistors become 70% of 70% of the area it took last time, about half.
The result of Moore’s Law is that one can either cram twice as many transistors into a chip every few years, the Intel/AMD way, or you can be modest in demand for silicon and make chips half the size they were before, the ARM way. Both approaches work but there are definite advantages in the market for both:
- The Intel way does give a more desirable/powerful CPU year after year, and
- the ARM way does give a lower cost chip that is good enough for a lot of purposes and uses very little power. ARM CPUs also increase in performance as higher clock-speeds can be used with the smaller transistors.
The latter advantage has gained traction in the embedded space because of low cost and small size and the mobile space because of the limited energy storage of a battery or limited energy production of a solar panel. The former advantage still has a place where volume computing is paramount but in the client space even the little Atom processor is overkill. I have an Atom in my house. It idles even playing HDMI video. So the power of the CPU has become much less important. On the other hand, people love small cheap portable computers so ARM is thriving and even moving into the server space where space and energy consumption matter.
ARMed CPUs now reach into the quad 2.5gHz realm and, really, many end-users have no need of more power as these CPUs consume only 0.5 watt, cost $20 or so and fit in a thumb drive. It seems to me and a few OEMs that the time has come to bring ARM back into all manner of client computing. I thought it would happen in a big way by Christmas, but it looks like it will take a bit longer, maybe Q1 of 2012. A few gadgets have trickled out like the “transformer” or sliding-keyboard machines but they are still at heart smart phones or tablets, not a regular notebook or desktop. Perhaps thin clients running ARM will be the next wave. It’s all good and keeps getting better.
Here’s a rather expensive ($200) thin client from HP that runs GNU/Linux on ARM:
I would bet the Chinese can do better than that.