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One of my favorite indulgences is a speedy new computer with a generous serving of new technology to explore. This fascination began in 1982 with a Commodore 64, which went on to become highest-selling single computer model of all time. When inexpensive clones of the IBM Personal Computer arrived two years later, offering a 10 fold increase in speed with 10 times as much memory, it didn’t take long for me to make the switch. When the local computer store was shuttered a few years later, I learned to do my own repairs and upgrades – the closest repair shop was now 100 miles away!
In those formative years, computer development reliably provided a steady performance improvement of 52% annually for nearly 30 years. Upgrading computers every 2 to 4 years was not unusual. Increasing the number of operations per microsecond and the number of transistors incorporated in processor chips inevitably made processors literally too hot to handle. High-end processor speeds approached 4 GHz in 2004 (several thousand times faster than the earliest processors!) and haven’t increased significantly since then.
Computer performance does not completely rely on a single component. Performance continues to improve, albeit at a slower pace – now about 20% annually overall. Recent performance advances include multicore processors (2 or more processors in a single chip), shrinking components in size (thus reducing internal heat production) and improving communication between internal components (the new and expensive M.2 NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) drives are breathtakingly faster than standard solid state drives). Unable to encourage new sales with faster performance, computer designs now often facilitate specific uses – hence the new competition in smartphones, ultraportable laptops, design workstations, digital whiteboards and other special purpose computers where function is more crucial than speed.
General purpose desktop computer sales began to slow when the impetus to upgrade frequently diminished, and consolidation in the mature industry accelerated. For example, Intel and AMD (Advanced Micro Designs) had an even split of the processor market in 2005, but Intel currently commands an 80% market share with almost complete dominance at the high end.
After four years and thousands of hours of research and development, AMD launched a moonshot on April 2, 2017 with the release of the first Ryzen processors targeted directly at the high-performance computing market. The $499 Ryzen7 1800X (with 8 cores and a clock speed of 4GHz) competes favorably with the $1089 Intel Core i7-6900K (8 cores and clock speed of 3.75GHz) while using less electrical power. Competitive results at half the price is a compelling attraction!
AMD has gone on to add additional equally competitive processors in multiple categories over the ensuing months. Intel has reacted by reducing some prices and has announced they are accelerating the launch of new processors initially intended for release next year, while AMD has regained 10% of the market. It seems that AMD is once again a serious contender. Let’s hope that consumers will turn out to be the real winners for a change!