Tag: Nvidia

Intel seems to have lost its way

Sean MaloneyThe news that Intel’s Galileo is on its way just underlines to me how the chip giant has lost its way.

The “open source” computer costs $70, and uses its Quark microprocessor. Intel clearly thinks it will compete against the highly successful Raspberry Pi but clearly it hasn’t got a chance to play catch up.

The launch mirrors Intel’s late attempt to climb on the tablet bandwagon by cutting the price of its Atom microprocessor to compete with ARM and Nvidia based chips.  But it hasn’t got an earthly here, either.  Manufacturers are very chary about using anything with the Intel name associated with the tin. Again, that’s underlined by vendors’ reluctance to be associated with Intel.

Cheap is everything in the tablet market now and even though Intel’s chips might be, er, cheap as chips, the economics of this don’t really make a lot of sense to anyone. Sure, Intel has heaps of capacity but that in itself is part of the problem. State of the art fabs are really expensive these days and the volume game just doesn’t fit Intel’s business model.

In reality, the chip giant really has very little new to say. The new broom in the shape of CEO  Brian Kzanic appears to be attempting the Herculean task of cleaning the Augean Stables not just of the dung but also of a heap of very good people who have let their legs do the walking.

Datacentre business no doubt is still healthy for Chipzilla, but on the other hand independent market research shows that the notebook market is on the wane.  Sure, enterprises will refresh their notebooks but with the arrival of BYOD, there’s a level of ambiguity which must leave Intel more than a little bemused.

In truth, Intel has had zilch to say in the last three years as smartphones and tablets transformed the “traditional” Wintel model.

As part of the antitrust agreement following the demise of DEC, Intel found itself with StrongARM devices. At the time, we asked top executives from the firm why it didn’t just cut the Gordian Knot and produce a highly portable ARM based device?  The answer, of course, was that Intel was on the Centrino notebook gravy train. Sean Maloney, now a non-executive director at Chinese foundry SMIC, realised that the Atom chip might well cannibalise the notebook market but nobody at Intel appeared to have looked further than the next three quarters and see its dominance becoming more and more eroded.

Of course, Intel has oodles of cash in the bank but oodles don’t last forever.  Re-engineering its business model is, for Intel, a far from trivial task. As an Intel watcher for the last 30 years, I will be most interested to see what happens in the next 12 to 18 months.

AMD shakes up high-end GPU market

radeon-r9-290AMD has lifted the NDA veil off its new flagship Radeon card and the first reviews and products announcements are popping up on the interweb. The press loves the R9 290X. AMD went to great lengths to keep the launch price a secret until the last possible moment, which appears to have been a very good move.

Most observers were expecting the new card to launch with a $599 or even $699 price tag, but it ended up at $549. This sounds like a very good deal as it wipes the floor with Nvidia’s $649 GTX 780 and it can even take on Nvidia’s $999 Titan card in some tests. Clearly Nvidia will have to do something to counter AMD’s launch and it already has a new version of the GTX 780 in the works, but pricing will be a problem and the R9 290X will erode Nvidia’s margins on GK110 products.

As far as specs go, the R9 290X is the first card based on AMD’s new Hawaii GPU. It features GCN 2.0 architecture, 512-bit memory bus, 2,816 shaders and it’s the biggest GPU AMD has ever built. Reviews indicate that performance is not an issue, although the card tends to get hot and loud in AMD’s high performance “Uber” mode. The cooler is not that great, which leaves a lot of room for AIB partners to play around with custom designs.

Another question is the Pro version, or the R9 290. The NDA will reportedly be lifted in a week and there is still no word on the price. The XT-based R9 290X is shaping up to be quite a performer, but the Pro version will offer plenty of performance at a much more attractive price point. However, it is still unclear how AMD plans to price it. At $449 it would be a nice deal, but if AMD really chooses to stick it to Nvidia and sacrifice margin, it might end up at $399, which would be very disruptive.

Nvidia has already reduced the prices of its sub-$199 cards to counter AMD’s rebranded R7 and R9 series products. Now it remains to be seen how low it can go and it won’t be easy – Nvidia’s GK110 GPU has about a billion transistors more than AMD’s Hawaii, which makes it quite a bit more expensive to produce, yet it ends up slower in most versions.

See Also
AMD declares war on Nvidia

International Electronics Forum 2013 – roundup

Dublin CourtsLast week, TechEye visited IEF 2013 in Dublin to hear what the semiconductor industry had to say for itself. Here’s the roundup:

Imagination Technologies’ Tony King-Smith said the future really relies not on the humble CPU but industry and engine cooperation for the System on Chip. “SoCs means everything is now mobile, and continues to have advanced capabilities. They are the only way to get scaleability,” King-Smith said.

Barry O’Leary, CEO of IDA Ireland, talked about investment in the Emerald Isle. Naturally the 12 percent corporation tax was mentioned. Four of the most crucial investors in Ireland are in tech, including Intel and HP, and social media is also experiencing huge growth. The IDA chiefly looks at manufacturing and R&D.

Senior Nvidia research scientist John Chen told the audience about various problems associated with nodes at under 20nm, specifically in performance, perfection and precision. But technologies like zero leakage transistors, III-V, Ge channel and carbon nanotubes will help the industry march on.

EU commissioner for digital agenda, Neelie Kroes, gave a keynote about Europe’s hopes to punch up in technology and innovation, including spending of €100 billion in R&D by 2020, leading to job creation, we were told, as well as smarter kit. Europe also wants to boost its performance in production capabilities.

TSMC’s senior director of R&D, Yee-Chaung See, highlighted problems in EUV and talked up the company’s 20 nano SoCs, adding qualification for 16 nano SoCs should be finished by the end of the year. It’s focusing on 3D stacking, while there are already high yields in SRAM. Gains in 3D, it is hoped, will lead to producing a silicon system super chip, that can integrate analogue, image sensors, photonics, MEMS and TSV.

Ram Ramamoorthy, professor at Edinburgh University, unfortunately indicated it’ll be a long time, if ever, if replicants of iconic futuristic dystopia Bladerunner are going to come to be. A machine is where the sophistication is such a robot can simulate some human senses like sight and sound. That means football playing robots, but they’re not great at it yet.

“The level of intelligence of robots in movies is very difficult to achieve,” Ramamoorthy said. “It’s very hard to deal with real people but in reality it’s very hard to model human users, that’s one of the biggest challenges we’re looking at”.

Plessey CEO Michael Le Goff told the room that, by using Gallium Nitride on silicon substrates to create LEDs, advanced lighting will be lower cost. And eventually, you’ll die before your lightbulb does.

Principle analyst at Future Horizons, which hosted the conference, Malcolm Penn, warned that there is a “chip crunch” around the corner. “The basics of fab capacity is cast in stone,” Penn said. “Capacity can’t be influenced for a year. We’ve not being building capacity which I think is dangerous,” Penn said. “There’s a silicon crunch just around the next corner. The most crucial part of the food chain is being treated with complete cavalier indifference. That’s because the capital spend is too low”.

Microsoft Cambridge’s senior research director, Alex Butler, talked the room through various research projects at the company. That includes advances in touch, and Butler assures us that although many of the R&D group’s creations won’t see the light of day, others find their way into products. The group is interested in the future of tech, five, 10 or 15 years away from now.

Compound semiconductors will play a major role in a different kind of Moore’s Law, Drew Nelson, CEO of IQE, asserted.  Although silicon is approaching its natural limits, compound semiconductors have more functionality and flexibility – according to Nelson, the materials are just better that silicon, and from a power perspective there is a clear lead.

Crocus doesn’t have MRAM in the market yet, but there’s a licence agreement with IBM for 65/45nm memory logic units to go into production later this year, CEO Jacques Noels said. Crocus thinks it has figured out stability problems in magnetic memories, while 28nm for generation 4 is on the horizon.

Investment company Convergence’s CEO and former Director General of the Department of Communications in South Africa, Andile Ngcaba, spoke on trends across the African continent. Just in 1990, there were more phones in Manhattan than the entire continent, but with the emergence of mobile there is more connectivity than ever. However, getting connected proves challenging: poly silicon is expensive and not particularly economical at the moment. So petrochemical companies are cleaning up with fossil fuel-powered base stations.
*EyeSee We’ve heard that some chip giants are being economical with the truth about the size of their semiconductors. TSMC’s 14nm chips are a little closer to 20nm. Intel’s 14nm chips are between 16nm to 17nm, and Samsung’s measure in at roughly 18nm. None were available for comment.

 

AMD Hawaii event has aggression written all over it

radeon-r9-290Huge GPU launches are back. An AMD  webcast dragged on for more than two and a half hours and the ailing chip firm went to great lengths to explain a few new technologies, showcase games and of course talk GPUs. In fact, the event was so big that many complained the presentations were too long and too elaborate.

Let’s take a quick look at what AMD graphics boss Matt Skynner announced last night. As expected, AMD has a new naming scheme, mid range products now come with an R7 prefix, while the R9 prefix is reserved for high-end and performance boards.

The line-up starts with the R7 250, with 1GB of GDDR5 memory. AMD says the card scores 2,000 in the Firestrike benchmark and it’s priced at $89, so AMD calls it the king of sub-$100 gaming. The R7 260X comes with 2GB of memory and hits 3,700 in Firestrike.

The R9 series starts at $199, with the R9 270X with 2GB of RAM and a Firestrike score of 5,500. The R9 280X is priced at $299 and scores 6,800 in Firestrike. AMD says it was designed for 1440p gaming.

The flagship R7 290X boasts 4GB of RAM and a 512-bit memory bus, with bandwidth of over 300GB/s. AMD did not reveal its price or the exact specs and clocks of any of the cards. Rumours point at a $599 price tag, but rumours can be wrong. The general consensus is that the R7 290X should outpace Nvidia’s GTX 780, perhaps even the pricey Titan.

All in all the new generation looks very competitive, at least on paper. We’ll have to wait for some proper reviews before jumping to conclusions. The cards are expected to hit retail in the second half of October, but this isn’t official, either.

AMD also used the opportunity to talk up TrueAudio, a new spatial audio technology incorporated in some of the new cards. The tech press had a chance to see it, or hear it in action at the event and the first impression is very positive.

Then there were games, loads and loads of games. AMD scored an exclusive bundle deal with EA and it will sell a limited bundle edition of the R9 290X with Battlefield 4. AMD also promised to deliver even better even better Never Settle bundles, which could help the new cards gain a bit more traction.

But in our opinion, the biggest news wasn’t a new card or a new game – it was the fact that AMD chose to stage such an event at all. AMD and Nvidia are now talking about a renaissance in PC gaming and analysts seem to agree. Sales of gaming gear are bucking the industry trend and they are still growing. This year the sector will net $18 billion, but by 2016 the figure should hit $21 billion.

AMD and Nvidia believe consoles are no longer directly competing with PC gaming, not to mention smartphone and tablet gaming.

Hawaii illustrates AMD’s newfound love of GPUs

AMD, SunnyvaleThe PC market has been in trouble for quite a while, but even before the most recent slump, there were a few telltale signs that many big players were getting ready for a slowdown. Lavish launch parties aren’t very high on the agenda and the 2008 crash only sped up the austere trend.

AMD is now taking a different route. After years of low-profile product launches, the company is holding a big bash in Hawaii, where it will launch its latest Hawaii GPU on Wednesday.

This is clearly a statement of intent – AMD wants to raise the bar in the GPU space yet again. Nvidia on the other hand is talking up Tegra, but it’s not doing nearly as much on the GPU front. AMD has a few highly successful promotions in the form of Never Settle bundles, while Nvidia talks Tegra, Tegra and more Tegra. Did we mention Tegra?

So what’s behind AMD’s recent change of heart? Well, it might be a knock-on effect of Rory Read’s hands-on approach to management, but we believe it represents a strategic shift in AMD’s thinking. Nvidia still has a firm grasp on the professional market, with its high-margin Quadro series. It is also beating AMD in notebook design wins – but notebook sales aren’t going very well and with each new generation of Intel Core chips and AMD APUs, integrated graphics are getting better, hence the low-end discrete GPU market is evaporating.

Tegra was Nvidia’s way to tap new markets and make up for lost ground in the GPU space. It was by no means a failure, but it hasn’t been a huge success either. Nvidia no longer wants to deal with console GPUs, hence it ceded that market to AMD.

To some extent, AMD and Nvidia are no longer vying for the same market. There’s never been so little overlap when it comes to the AMD – Nvidia duopoly. AMD does consoles, Nvidia does discrete mobile GPUs, AMD does APUs, Nvidia does Tegra and so on.

Nvidia will continue to do well in the workstation space, as workstations are still selling quite well and they’ve been largely unaffected by the PC slump. Sales of gaming hardware are projected to grow at a steady CAGR of about three percent for the foreseeable future, which means both AMD and Nvidia should have no trouble selling mainstream and high-end discrete graphics. However, the console wins and the lack of presence in other markets mean that AMD is left to pursue the core gamer market more actively.

This explains the Hawaii bash along with the huge bundles. As Nvidia tries to diversify, AMD will try to attack its core business and right now it is lot more aggressive than it was a year or two ago. Whether AMD’s back-to-basics strategy will work remains to be seen.

Nvidia announces Tegra Note Android tab

nvidianoteNvidia has announced its very own Android tablet platform, the Tegra Note, readied by the company and brought to market by its partners.

Nvidia boasts that, rather than just providing a low cost and high quality build for Tegra 3, as with the Nexus 7, this is a “complete platform”. Partners include EVGA and PNY Technologies, Oysters, ZOTAC, Colorful, Shenzhen Homecare Technology, and XOLO, which will be joining HP, Asus, Toshiba, Kobo and Xiomi in Tegra 4 products.

So far Nvidia is a little late on the tablet front. The company does have products out there but not as many as it likes.

Tegra Note, however, will sport a Tegra 4 72 core GeForce GPU and quadcore Cortex A15 CPU, with the promise of battery saving tech. The company boasts this will make the Tegra Note the “world’s fastest 7 inch tablet”. It will also ship with Nvidia’s DirectStylus tech which should give users more precise and responsive control with a normal stylus.

Nvidia PureAudio will ship, too, which the company says includes the “widest frequency range in a tablet” through front facing stereo speakers and a bass reflex port.

This product sounds like a solid release compared to the gaming curio, Nvidia Shield, an experiment in remote PC gaming – as long as you’re not too far away. Tegra Note will ship with TegraZone for exclusive Tegra optimised graphics, and the company claims you’ll get a massive 10 hours of HD video playback.

Additionally, a range of accessories will be available, including an intelligent cover with built in magnets, the DirectStylus Pro Pack, and Bluetooth capabilities that turn the tablet into a controller. Over the air software updates will be sent out by Nvidia directly to keep software patched and up to date.

Retail prices will start at $199, taking on other low-cost but high performance tablets in the market.

Vega GPU Announced by Vivante

VivanteRight up front Vivante states that it designed its GPU architecture to scale to compete with Nvidia and ATI. It plans to vie with Nvidia in the next generation of ultra-mobile GPU in GTX/Maxwell, John Oram writes from San Francisco.

A fledgling start up once assisted by semiconductor angel investors and corporate investment from Fujitsu, Vivante was profitable five years after opening its doors. It is now headquartered in Sunnyvale, California with offices in Shanghai and Chengdu China. Over its nine year history, Vivante Corporation has infiltrated many markets.

The company flaunts its “firsts” – first to ship OpenGLES 3.0 silicon and first to ship embedded OpenCL 1.1 silicon. It has shipped over 120 million units. Currently, Vivante is inside the majority of the top players in the fields of SoC vendors, mobile OEMs, TV OEMs, and automotive OEMs.

At IDF, Vivante was heralding its  advantage over its competitors referring to benchmark ratings in its slides. For example see the GC1000 – Mali 400-MP2 comparison where it also pictorially point out the difference in size between the Mali and smaller Vivante product.

Smart TVs, such as Vizio, LG U+, Lenevo, TCL, Hisense, and Changhong, rely on Vivante. Chromecast Internet to TV streaming experiences Acceleration by Vivante in 3D gaming, composition, and user interface. Set top boxes from Toshiba out of Japan, and three companies out of Shenzhen, China, Huawei, Himedia,and GIEC, all use Vivante’s GPU Acceleration.

Tomorrow’s cars will never be the same. Vivante is everywhere. Drivers will check out their positioning with ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) displays, reverse guidance, pedestrian detection, and object distance indicators. In fact, Vivante was awarded the 2013 Frost & Sullivan Best Practices Award  for Advanced Driver Assistance Systems.

Vivante used IDF to announce Vega. Vega is the culmination of seven years of architecture refinements and the experience of more than 100 SoC integrations. It is optimized to balance the big three: performance, power, and area. GPU delivers highest in class performance at greater than 1 GHz GPU clock speeds. It even touts patented logarithmic space full precision math units. Vega is optimized and configured from production GPU cores GC2000, GC4000, and GC5000. Vega GPUs have been delivered to lead customers for tapeout.

Vivante’s SDK is ready for GUI, gaming, and navigation applications. Vivante provides full API support across the GPU product line, OpenGL ES 3.0, OpenCL 1.2, and DirectX 11 9_3. The company prides itself on its Scalable Ultra-threaded Unified Shader which offers up to 32x SIMD Vec-4 shaders and up to 256 independent threads per shader operate on discrete data in parallel. Shaders facilitate creation of an endless range of effects by tweaking hue, brightness, contrast and saturation of the pixels, vertices and textures to create an image. Shaders provide a programmable alternative to the hard-coded approach known as Fixed Function Pipeline.

Vivante isn’t shy about pointing out its edge over the competition. As far as performance / area advantages, they are taking on Tegra, Adreno, Mali, and IMG.

In conclusion, Vivante indicated that it isn’t overlooking the mass market either with their Vega Lite version which still promises the smallest silicon area matched with extremely low power.

AMD, Intel gain share in GPU market

graphics-cardsGPU shipments are recovering and according to Jon Peddie Research, the graphics market increased 4.6 percent last quarter, while the PC market as a whole took a 2.5 percent sequential dip. Intel and AMD upped their market share, at Nvidia’s expense, of course.

The increase in overall GPU shipments reveals that many customers are choosing to “double-attach,” or add a discrete GPU to a system with integrated graphics. This doesn’t really paint the full picture, as practically all Intel non-server chips ship with integrated graphics and the same goes for more than two thirds of AMD chips. As a result, the average PC today has 1.4 GPUs on board.

On a year-to-year basis total graphics shipments in the second quarter dropped 6.8 percent. Once again this was better than PC shipments, which slipped 11.2 percent. JPR expects the total shipments of graphics chips in 2016 to hit 319 million units and the CAGR from 2012 to 2016 now stands at -1.4 percent.

jpr-gpu-market-2q13

AMD’s overall PC graphics shipments increased 10.9 percent and the company upped its market share to 21.9 percent. However, shipments of APUs declined 9.6 percent. Shipments of APUs in notebooks increased 47.1 percent, but it should be noted that AMD’s presence in notebooks is rather limited. With that in mind all it takes to get such a high figure is a few design wins.

Intel’s desktop graphics shipments dropped 1.4 percent, but notebooks were up 12.1 percent. Intel’s overall shipments increased 6.2 percent.

Nvidia was the big loser last quarter. Its desktop discrete shipments were down 8.9 percent, while discrete mobile shipments were down 7.1 percent. It should be noted that Nvidia scored the vast majority of Haswell notebook design wins, but new notebooks aren’t exactly flying off shop shelves right now.

Although some of the numbers are encouraging, total GPU shipments were down 5.2 percent from the same quarter last year. The trend for discrete GPUs remains negative, with a CAGR to 2016 of -2.2 percent.

Nvidia’s tablet push starts to take shape

tegra-tabNvidia is trying to reinvent itself and make up for lost ground on the PC front with Tegra, but simply designing chips isn’t enough for the GPU maker.

Earlier this year Nvidia showed off the Phoenix, a mid-range smartphone based on the upcoming Tegra 4i. Then it introduced the Shield, a curious little device which aims to combine PC streaming and Android gaming in one package.

There has been talk of Nvidia tablets for months and even that is hardly news. Nvidia’s first crack at the tablet market came last year, but it went under the radar. Kai was the name and it was a loose reference design for cheap tablets based on the Tegra 3, much like a Nexus 7. It never took off.

Now it seems Nvidia is ready to ditch reference designs and sell tablets under its own brand and the floodgates opened. Yesterday it emerged that the company trademarked “Tegra Tab” in the US, while Fudzilla reported that a high-end tablet based on the upcoming Tegra 5 is coming in early 2014. Today a Chinese tech site leaked the first images of an actual Tegra Tab. The photos reveal a 7-inch device with stylus support, microHDMI output and a rubberized back, similar to the Nexus 7.

There is still no word on specs, availability or pricing for the device, but the leaks are shedding more light on Nvidia’s tablet push. Like most tablet makers, Nvidia appears to be gunning for two form factors, 7 inches and probably something close to 10 inches. Tegra Tab is the brand name, but we’re not sure how Nvidia plans to play it out. It’s practically certain that Nvidia will roll out tablets under its own brand, but it might offer the exact same platform, perhaps even the brand name to its hardware partners.

Nvidia decided to design and market the Shield on its own. Since it is a rather odd device which doesn’t fall into any existing category and doesn’t compete with other Tegra products, the decision made sense.

However, if Nvidia starts selling tablets based on its latest SoCs, it could irk quite a few of its clients. Tegra 3 got plenty of traction in the tablet market, but Tegra 4 won’t replicate its success. The Tegra 3 powered a bunch of Android tablets last year, including the Nexus 7 and other Asus models. It also ended up in the Surface RT, which flopped quite spectacularly.

Now that Tegra 4 tablets are few and far between, it should be a lot easier for Nvidia to come up with its own tablets without burning too many bridges. Nvidia posted some rather disappointing Tegra figures in its latest earnings report yesterday and it pinned part of the blame on the failure of Windows RT. CEO Jen Hsun Huang admitted that Tegra revenue won’t recover in the short term.

Although the market for Android tablets is booming, much of the growth appears to be coming from cheap white-box tablets. Big vendors are struggling to turn a profit on high-end Android tablets and even hot 7-inchers aren’t doing very well. Entering the Android tablet market at this point is a bit like invading Russia in November.

So what’s behind Nvidia’s decision to start building Tegra based tablets, consoles and phones? It might be strategic thinking, diversifying and going after new markets should appease investors in the short term, although it might be a while before Nvidia’s Tegra consumer hardware operations turn a profit. Nvidia is no longer in consoles, the high volume low-end graphics market is disappearing and the Tegra business should fill the gap, backed by high-end consumer GPUs and professional graphics. Nvidia could potentially start bundling Shield consoles and cheap tablets with high end cards or allowing embattled AIB partners to build tablets based on its reference designs.

The other explanation is desperation rather than long-term strategic thinking. Tegra 3 was the company’s biggest success in the SoC market to date. It ended up in the HTC One X, Nexus 7 and Surface RT, along with a bunch of other devices. Even so, it wasn’t a big seller as the combined shipments of the Nexus 7 and Surface RT are estimated at 6.5 to 8 million units, depending on who you talk to. Asus and other vendors also used the Tegra 3 in their own designs, but very few of them actually shipped. Tegra 4 was late, too big and too hot, so it scored even fewer design wins and it doesn’t power a single phone.

Even if Nvidia somehow manages to score the majority of high-end Android tablet design wins, it would not end up with impressive volumes. An HTC One or Galaxy S4 routinely outsell all high-end Android tablets combined. Meanwhile Tegra 4i won’t be ready for the next four months and even when it ships it will go after mid-range phones. Nvidia is running out of options, fast. If it doesn’t score any high-volume design wins with the Tegra 5, it might have no choice but to use its chips in its own gear.

That is not a strategy. That is doing the only thing that can be done and calling it a strategy. That is tactics.

PC gaming hardware bucks negative trend

gamer-sexAlthough the PC market is going through a rough patch, sales of gaming hardware seem to be weathering the storm quite well. Hardcore gamers are enthusiasts, they can’t trade in their beloved desktops for laptops, let alone tablets. Even console gaming is frowned upon in many circles.

As a result, gamers are continuing to spend and upgrade their high-end PCs. Jon Peddie Research found that sales of gaming hardware will continue to grow and at a CAGR of 3 percent over the next three years. Sales slumped this year and they are expected to hit $18.3 billion. By 2016, however, JPR reckons they will reach $20.7 billion.

Jon Peddie, President of JPR said “Not only is gaming becoming an even more important purchasing influence of PC sales due to the offloading of more basic functionality to smart devices, but we are forecasting growth in the most expensive discrete graphics products. We are also impressed with the embedded graphics offerings this generation and going forward.”

Analyst Ted Pollak also pointed out that many new games are placing increasing demands on the CPU, hence swapping out the graphics card doesn’t do the trick anymore – gamers have to upgrade their CPUs as well. In many cases this means they have to replace the motherboard as well, while investments in additional components such as faster memory and power supply units are not uncommon in such scenarios.

JPR believes that traditional PCs have an advantage in casual gaming as x86 tablets expand the market, and new powerful CPUs with built-in graphics have opened the door to the living room. Nothing can surpass PCs at this point in time because they can run ultra high resolution graphics better than any other platform. Sadly though, 4K or UHD monitors and TVs are still years away from going mainstream, as they could generate even more demand for high-end GPUs and CPUs.

However, although JPR’s forecast is good news for many vendors, we have some long-term concerns.

PC gaming doesn’t come cheap and with record youth unemployment and very little in the way of disposable income, high-end gaming PCs are simply out of reach for many potential buyers. AAA titles don’t come cheap, either. Furthermore most gamers grew up with PCs and they developed a love for tinkering and hardware at a very young age. Now that most kids’ first contact with computers comes in the form of tablets, smartphones and consoles, it will be increasingly difficult to recruit new PC gamers.

In addition, the pace of hardware development in the PC industry is slowing. While we see twofold performance improvements with each generation of ARM-based SoCs, big GPUs and CPUs used in high-end PCs simply can’t deliver such boosts and the performance difference between subsequent generations is narrowing. This trend is here to stay, due to technical limitations, but development of ARM chips is also likely to slow down, as they hit the thermal barrier. Cloud gaming and streaming are also potential threats. A few years down the road gamers might be leasing processing power and streaming games to any screen they want, which would be very bad news for some vendors. Luckily, that won’t happen anytime soon.

Microsoft hit by $900 million Surface RT write-down

surface-rtMicrosoft announced its fiscal Q4 results last night and unsurprisingly the results missed expectations by a wide margin. The PC market remains slow, hence Redmond’s numbers can’t be good. The company reported revenue of $19.9 billion and earnings of $4.97 billion.

However, Microsoft’s attempt to tap the tablet market seems to have failed quite spectacularly. Redmond announced an embarrassing $900 million inventory write-down for Surface RT tablets. So, instead of helping the company out, the Surface burned a massive hole in its pocket.

Last week Microsoft slashed the Surface RT price by $150 in an apparent effort to clear inventory. The company is already working on the next generation of Surface RT products and it apparently includes two different form factors. The problem is that nobody else appears to be working on RT devices – in fact vendors seem to be running away from it like a particularly nasty flu bug.

The only companies who still seem to be supporting Windows RT are Qualcomm and Nvidia, which comes as no surprise since they are supposed to build the chips for next generation Surface devices. In a recent interview with Computerworld, Nvidia vice president of computing products Rene Haas said the chipmaker is still committed to Surface RT and Windows RT. He said he is excited by the “new price point” which might inspire new sales.

However, analysts are having none of it.

J. Gold Associates analyst Jack Gold said that Nvidia is simply marketing its product. “They don’t want to spook the market and say RT sucks and won’t sell,” he said. Analyst and ex-AMD and Compaq employee Pat Moorhead thinks Microsoft won’t ditch the platform anytime soon – even if it means that it will be the only OEM using it.

However, even Microsoft can’t afford such write-downs every couple of quarters and something has to change soon, or it will have another Zune on its hands.

The writing is on the wall for Windows RT

surface-rtOver the last week or so we witnessed a flurry of Windows RT news, some positive, some very negative indeed. Late last week Microsoft decided to slash the prices of the Surface RT by as much as $150 in an effort to make the uncompetitive tablet a bit more appealing to the average consumer on the prowl for a cheap media tablet.

In June, Microsoft announced that it would release Outlook 2013 for Windows RT tablets, which is clearly an attempt to gain a bit more traction in the enterprise segment. The decision not to include Outlook in Windows RT at launch was baffling, and still is. The first reviews of Outlook 2013 for RT are in and they are positive, but it really should have been included months ago. With the upcoming 8.1 update, it should land on all RT devices, provided there are still RT devices by the time it appears.

This is no laughing matter, the lack of actual Windows RT products is becoming a serious concern. For example, Lenovo has just dropped the Yoga 11 convertible from its web shop. Dell and Asus have also slashed the prices of their RT tablets. Some players like HP ignored Windows RT altogether, while some gave it a go and dropped it, like Samsung. What’s more, all vendors are focusing on proper Windows 8 tablets instead, based on x86 chips.

In fact, the only hardware maker that still seems to be taking Windows RT seriously is Microsoft itself. The Surface RT price cut is a way of clearing inventory and making room for the next generation Surface RT, or a couple of them. At this point it seems that Microsoft is working on two different designs. One is reportedly based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 SoC, while the other one will be powered by Nvidia’s Tegra 4. Rumours of a smaller Surface RT have been floating around for months and there is a good chance Microsoft will roll out a 7- to 8-inch design along with a new full-size 10.6-incher.

Unfortunately it seems to be too late. Future Windows RT tablets, including the Surface RT in both rumoured flavours, will now have to compete with tablets based on Intel’s new Bay Trail chips. This was not the case last year, when the Surface RT was opposed solely by ARM based Androids and iPads. Now it will face tough in-house competition in the form of Windows 8.1 tablets powered by Intel’s x86 Atoms. What’s more, Bay Trail is shaping up to be a beast. It is said to be faster than the Snapdragon 800 and it doesn’t need much power, either.

With new x86 SoCs from Intel and AMD coming online, it is hard to see why Microsoft would want to stick with a specialized tablet OS, designed for ARM. The next generation of Windows 8.x tablets is expected to end up a lot cheaper than the first generation, leaving very little wiggle room for Windows RT. Small wonder then that many brands aren’t getting on board, since they seem to believe Windows RT will be dead as disco within a generation or two.

It seems that the only practical way to keep Windows RT alive in the long run is to stick it on dirt cheap tablets designed to take on bargain Androids in the 7- to 8-inch range. This probably won’t work, as Windows RT is rather bloated and it’s far too expensive to make sense on such cheap devices, unless Microsoft agrees to practically give it away for free. Since we are talking about Microsoft, this will happen when hell freezes over. In theory at least, Microsoft could keep Windows RT alive, but we’re really not sure it should.

Microsoft to slash Surface RT prices in US

surface-rtMicrosoft is apparently about to slash the price of its Surface RT 32GB tablet by $150. The price cut should help the troubled tablet quite a bit, as it was originally priced at $499, which made it rather uncompetitive given its underwhelming spec.

Now though major retailers in the US are listing the Surface RT 32GB for just $349, reports Engadget. The new price sounds like a pretty good deal, although it is still no bargain. With such a sensible price tag, the Surface RT might have been a success, but the cut seems to be coming too late. Although Microsoft has not released any official sales figures, analysts believe it only manages to ship a couple of hundred thousand units per month.

Furthermore, the Surface RT is already ripe for an upgrade. It is based on Nvidia’s Tegra 3 and it has a 10.6-inch screen with 1366×768 resolution, which makes it look rather obsolete compared to iPads and high-end Android tablets.

Microsoft is expected to introduce an all new Surface RT in a few months, but before it does the current model should get a significant OS update, along with Outlook and it seems – a new, sane price tag.

Nvidia takes on AMD with game bundle

nvidia-gangnam-style-330pxNvidia has announced a game bundle for the summer season, in cooperation with Ubisoft. The Splinter Cell Blacklist promotion is clearly aimed to counter AMD’s highly successful Never Settle Reloaded bundle, but in reality both bundles are an indication that AMD and Nvidia really don’t have any truly new GPUs to offer this year.

Nvidia’s bundle will include the latest Ubisoft Splinter Cell game, Splinter Cell Blacklist, and it all cards above the GTX 660 will be eligible, including all GTX 700 series cards. Interestingly, the ultra high end GTX 690 and GTX Titan are not included in the programme, which might mean that Nvidia has something even better lined up for its flagship products, or that it feels that they don’t need any freebies to sell well.

Although the promo is kicking off now, SC Blacklist won’t launch until late August, but Nvidia will have plenty of download codes ready and waiting. The promotion is expected to last until the winter game season when it will probably be replaced by a new bundle.

In any case 2013 is shaping up to be a rough year for the PC gaming market. New consoles are on the way, while at the same time GPU makers really don’t have much to offer in terms of new hardware.

Android consoles stumble

nvidia-shieldSony, Microsoft and Nintendo have rolled out their latest generation consoles and although they feature very impressive hardware, some analysts are already saying that they could be the last generation of big consoles on proprietary operating systems.

Sales of mobile consoles have also taken a hit, as more and more consumers traded them in for smartphones and tablets. It’s nothing new, we saw the same trend with personal media players and compact cameras.

However, if mobiles are indeed cannibalising consoles, isn’t it time for smartphone makers to capitalize on the trend? Google seems to think so. Late Thursday several reputable outlets reported that Google is indeed working on some sort of Android console. It is apparently loosely based on the Nexus Q, a streaming device which flopped before it hit the market. Google is starting to take hardware quite seriously. A couple of years ago it only sold a single product, the developer friendly Nexus smartphone series. However, over the past 12 months Google also introduced two Nexus tablets and Google Glass. Let’s not forget about the company’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility, either.

On the other hand, it must be said that Google’s idea is anything but original. Kickstarter sensation Ouya is about to hit the market, after a couple of delays. Based on Nvidia’s old Tegra 3 chip, the Ouya was envisioned as a homebrew Android console with a $99 price tag. The first reviews weren’t impressive, but then again this is hardly surprising given the nature of the project.

Nvidia also entered the fray with Project Shield, a handheld console based on the much more powerful Tegra 4 SoC. It’s a bit bigger than Sony’s or Nintendo’s handhelds, but it also has a unique trick up its sleeve. It can be used to stream PC games, but the feature is still not ready for prime time. It has a 720p screen and a $299 price tag, but yesterday Nvidia announced that Shield would be delayed by a few weeks due to a mechanical fault.

The delays illustrate that Android consoles are bound to face a number of teething problems. Android still lacks truly compelling games designed to attract hardcore gamers. Most Android games are made with the casual gamer in mind, and with relatively poor hardware. However, hardware shouldn’t be an issue in the long run. Mobile chips are evolving at a much faster pace than their PC counterparts. New SoC designs like the Snapdragon 800 and Tegra 4 feature vastly improved GPUs and they are capable of delivering a pleasant gaming experience at 720p and even 1080p, with some caveats. The level of detail still can’t come close to PC or console games, regardless of what spinners would have us believe. Although a 1080p game could look lovely on a 4.8-inch smartphone, it wouldn’t be much to look at on a 40- to 50-inch television.

Software might be a tougher nut to crack. Piracy is rampant on Android and even if that wasn’t a problem most users prefer casual games on the go, rather than big budget games that can generate plenty of revenue to pay for the eye candy needed for 1080p televisions. Attracting big developers won’t be easy, but someone has to make the first step and in this case it seems as if Nvidia has the best chance of getting some devs on board, as it is trying to get the best of both worlds, with PC streaming on a portable Android console with pretty good hardware. To make Android consoles truly attractive, developers must start coming up with titles specifically designed to make good use of physical controllers and fast chips used in such devices. The one size fits all approach, used to develop tablet and smartphone games, just won’t work. With next to no Android consoles on the market, this won’t happen anytime soon.

If Android consoles do take off, and we believe they will, sooner or later, the gaming market could be in for a frugal surprise. An average high-budget Xbox game costs about $60, yet the Ouya is priced at $99 and the Shield should sell for $299. This is a massive difference that won’t go unnoticed in emerging markets, or in the West for that matter. The Play Store could also democratize the market, allowing small outfits with good ideas to publish their games with ease, ending up with a runaway hit. Such success stories are not uncommon in the iOS and Android universe, as the market is not dominated by huge developers with endless budgets. The openness also means other software can be developed and put to good use, transforming Android consoles into proper home entertainment centres, capable of handling rudimentary computing, thus putting even more pressure on the embattled PC market.

All this leaves us with a very interesting emerging market, with plenty of pitfalls and opportunities for all involved. As tablets and smartphones mature, hardware makers will start exploring smaller niches. Samsung already has Android cameras and a strange phone-camera hybrid with a zoom lens. Smaller outfits are building dirt cheap Android sticks and some are experimenting with other form factors, like gaming tablets.

Although the first generation of Android consoles doesn’t seem too impressive, the market will be anything but boring over the next few years.