Many of us spent a lot more time in front of our computers in 2020 than ever before, thanks to lockdown conditions and completely changed dynamics around work, communication, education and even leisure. Our technology has kept us all connected, and the industry has largely kept pace with these changes. In fact, despite the macroeconomic slowdown, we have seen increased demand for computer hardware in the form of components as well as pre-built PCs and laptops because these are now essential.
Production and distribution have been affected to some extent, and prices in India have continued to rise thanks to taxes and currency fluctuations. Most hardware, however, takes years to develop, with plans set well in advance. Fortunately, the pace of innovation has continued as usual. It’s also clear that there was a surge in PC sales in 2020, largely thanks to remote working.
Here were the biggest stories of the year, from products to corporate mergers to security breaches, future roadmaps, and more. We are not looking at the makers of the PC industry in any particular order.
Apple Silicon shakes the industry
A story that will play out for several years was Apple’s big step towards internal CPUs. Moving from Intel’s commodity chips and industry-standard X86 architecture to fully custom ARM-based processors is no mean feat. The Switch was rumored and leaked for years, but when Apple announced its architectural achievements at WWDC in mid-2020 and then unveiled the first PCs with its in-house M1 chip, it’s safe to say that most people were pleasantly surprised by the end result .
The new MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini look just like their predecessors to draw attention to what’s inside. There is no major disruptive transition here. If you use everyday apps, you may not even notice anything else as Apple controls all of its own software. Rosetta 2 makes software emulation painless for the most part, and macOS 11 Big Sur is expertly optimized for the new hardware. In addition, you can now run many iOS apps on an M1-based Mac.
Pro users can wait a while as Intel-based Macs haven’t been entirely gone for a couple of years, but based on what we’ve already seen, more powerful Apple Silicon processors are on the way and things are sure to get even more interesting will.
Perhaps anticipating Apple’s success, Microsoft also appears keen to roll out custom ARM-based SoCs for its Surface line of products to give a boost to Windows on ARM efforts. In the next few years, X86 could fail as the de facto PC architecture standard.
In a different sense, Apple eventually launched its online Apple Store in India, which offers consumers direct sales, as well as advanced options for hardware configuration, customer service and even Today in Apple learning sessions. Apple even offered its first vacation offer in India, though it was short-lived. This is an important step ahead of the physical retail locations opening, hopefully in 2021.
Intel stumbles but has a clear way forward
Intel’s problems with 10nm production over the past five years are painfully well documented, and the company announced earlier this year that it is now anticipating significant delays in the next 7nm node as well. While rival AMD has been producing 7 nm CPUs for over a year, Intel cannot do so until the end of 2022 at the earliest. The consequences of this change included the departure of Murthy Renduchintala, Intel’s Chief Engineering Officer, and a major organizational reorganization. More importantly, Intel finally had to admit that its own manufacturing capabilities are not competitive enough and will turn to outside foundries like TSMC for some of its future needs. In addition, another serious and non-stackable vulnerability has been discovered in Load Value Injection.
It wasn’t all bad news, however; Intel claims that its existing processes are refined and efficient enough to meet current needs. The 11thth The Gen ‘Tiger Lake’ series launched this year is said to offer performance leaps of more than generations as well as improved battery life, while the 10thth Gen Comet Lake-S’s desktop lineup has raised the bar specifically for gaming. Intel also unveiled its Foveros 3D stacking technology, SuperFin transistor design, and a new modular approach that allows heterogeneous cores and other logic blocks to be mixed and matched, and designs to be more easily adapted to different manufacturing nodes.
The first Intel NUC laptop kit shows how the company wants OEMs to position their offerings. Intel Evo platform branding was introduced to establish a standard for high-end ultraportables, and an entirely new visual identity could bring the brand to life.
There is also a lot to look forward to. Intel hosted Virtual Architecture Day and Labs Day events this year. The latest Xe GPU demos and roadmaps have been announced, including a new plan for an enthusiast-class discrete gaming GPU with hardware ray tracing in 2021. The upcoming ‘Rocket Lake’ architecture will be Intel’s newer 10nm architecture for desktops backport to 14 nm. Following this, ‘Alder Lake’ will combine high-performance and high-performance cores in mainstream PCs for the first time. The hybrid ‘Lakefield’ CPU is now shipping and is used in the groundbreaking Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold.
Research and development have also made advances in neuromorphic computing, cryogenic quantum control chips, and integrated photonics for data centers.
Finally, Intel released its Thunderbolt 4 standard, which will become much more general thanks to the fact that USB4 is essentially the same standard but with more general restrictions on implementation. The updated standard supports a throughput of 40 Gbps and a power output of 100 W. Anyone can implement Thunderbolt now, so it should become the norm on AMD-based platforms. It’s also built into many newer Intel CPUs.
The latest Ryzen CPUs and Radeon GPUs from AMD work well but are hard to find
AMD continued its stellar run, releasing the first of its Zen 3 architecture-based Ryzen 5000 desktop CPUs this year. At the upper end, AMD found that it can measure up to Intel’s best competitors for single-threaded and multi-threaded tasks. Performance has improved significantly, but prices have risen across the board and stocks have been tight. Many people feel that in many segments the value equation has actually fallen back in favor of Intel. Older Ryzen 3000 series CPUs and minor updates to the Ryzen 3000 XT series also saw price spikes due to supply and demand issues.
On the graphics side, AMD started the year with the mid-range Radeon RX 5600 XT and followed the Radeon RX 6000 series to conquer the 4K performance crown. Based on the new RDNA 2 architecture that also supports the custom AMD chips used for this year’s PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X | S consoles were developed. AMD now offers ray tracing, and an equivalent to Nvidia’s DLSS upscaling technology is expected soon. AMD’s decline, however, remains pricing and scarcity as few options are available at inflated rates in India.
AMD’s Ryzen 4000 series laptop processors have been in high demand this year, especially in gaming laptops. The company has won many fans thanks to its competitive performance and good pricing. AMD also hopes to work with SmartShift to capitalize on its CPU and GPU technology, which allows power and heat to be dynamically managed between all the major components of a laptop. However, only one such model was launched in 2020.
Nvidia continues to dominate high-end gaming
Nvidia released its GeForce RTX 2000 Super series for laptops earlier this year. GeForce RTX 3000 GPUs were recently introduced. The performance is of course far better than before as these new models raise the bar at every price level. The Founders Edition graphics card from Nvidia has been completely redesigned with exotic double-sided coolers and high-quality materials. In India in particular, direct retailing through a distributor means Founders Editions cost a lot less than third-party cards, leading to a surge in popularity.
The company continues to promote the visual fidelity of ray tracing and DLSS upsampling with many more games in 2020 support including Cyberpunk 2077, Minecraft, CoD: Black Ops Cold War, and Watch Dogs: Legion.
GeForce Now, Nvidia’s cloud gaming service, opened to the public in early 2020 and Gadgets 360 was able to test its performance in India. While the experience wasn’t seamless and workarounds are required to deal with geographic restrictions, high-end games are still playable well on low-speed PCs and Macs, and even on Android phones.
In a move beyond the PC realm, Nvidia made an incredible $ 40 billion offer to buy ARM Holdings, the company behind the ARM architecture that makes billions of smartphones, embedded devices, and infrastructure devices Powers PCs, servers, cars and IoT products. If the deal gets regulatory approval, it will be a huge upheaval, especially when it comes to AI and cloud computing.
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