Nehalem and Swift Chips Spell the End of Stand-Alone Graphics Boards
When AMD purchased graphics card maker ATI, most industry observers assumed that the combined company would start working on a CPU-GPU fusion. That work is further along than you may think.
What is it? While GPUs get tons of attention, discrete graphics boards are a comparative rarity among PC owners, as 75 percent of laptop users stick with good old integrated graphics, according to Mercury Research. Among the reasons: the extra cost of a discrete graphics card, the hassle of installing one, and its drain on the battery. Putting graphics functions right on the CPU eliminates all three issues.
Chip makers expect the performance of such on-die GPUs to fall somewhere between that of today's integrated graphics and stand-alone graphics boards--but eventually, experts believe, their performance could catch up and make discrete graphics obsolete. One potential idea is to devote, say, 4 cores in a 16-core CPU to graphics processing, which could make for blistering gaming experiences.
When is it coming? Intel's soon-to-come Nehalem chip includes graphics processing within the chip package, but off of the actual CPU die. AMD's Swift (aka the Shrike platform), the first product in its Fusion line, reportedly takes the same design approach, and is also currently on tap for 2009.
Putting the GPU directly on the same die as the CPU presents challenges--heat being a major one--but that doesn't mean those issues won't be worked out. Intel's two Nehalem follow-ups, Auburndale and Havendale, both slated for late 2009, may be the first chips to put a GPU and a CPU on one die, but the company isn't saying yet.
USB 3.0 Speeds Up Performance on External Devices
The USB connector has been one of the greatest success stories in the history of computing, with more than 2 billion USB-connected devices sold to date. But in an age of terabyte hard drives, the once-cool throughput of 480 megabits per second that a USB 2.0 device can realistically provide just doesn't cut it any longer.
What is it? USB 3.0 (aka "SuperSpeed USB") promises to increase performance by a factor of 10, pushing the theoretical maximum throughput of the connector all the way up to 4.8 gigabits per second, or processing roughly the equivalent of an entire CD-R disc every second. USB 3.0 devices will use a slightly different connector, but USB 3.0 ports are expected to be backward-compatible with current USB plugs, and vice versa. USB 3.0 should also greatly enhance the power efficiency of USB devices, while increasing the juice (nearly one full amp, up from 0.1 amps) available to them. That means faster charging times for your iPod--and probably even more bizarre USB-connected gear like the toy rocket launchers and beverage coolers that have been festooning people's desks.
When is it coming? The USB 3.0 spec is nearly finished, with consumer gear now predicted to come in 2010. Meanwhile, a host of competing high-speed plugs--DisplayPort, eSATA, and HDMI--will soon become commonplace on PCs, driven largely by the onset of high-def video. Even FireWire is looking at an imminent upgrade of up to 3.2 gbps performance. The port proliferation may make for a baffling landscape on the back of a new PC, but you will at least have plenty of high-performance options for hooking up peripherals.
Wireless Power Transmission
Wireless power transmission has been a dream since the days when Nikola Tesla imagined a world studded with enormous Tesla coils. But aside from advances in recharging electric toothbrushes, wireless power has so far failed to make significant inroads into consumer-level gear.
What is it? This summer, Intel researchers demonstrated a method--based on MIT research--for throwing electricity a distance of a few feet, without wires and without any dangers to bystanders (well, none that they know about yet). Intel calls the technology a "wireless resonant energy link," and it works by sending a specific, 10-MHz signal through a coil of wire; a similar, nearby coil of wire resonates in tune with the frequency, causing electrons to flow through that coil too. Though the design is primitive, it can light up a 60-watt bulb with 70 percent efficiency.
When is it coming? Numerous obstacles remain, the first of which is that the Intel project uses alternating current. To charge gadgets, we'd have to see a direct-current version, and the size of the apparatus would have to be considerably smaller. Numerous regulatory hurdles would likely have to be cleared in commercializing such a system, and it would have to be thoroughly vetted for safety concerns.
Assuming those all go reasonably well, such receiving circuitry could be integrated into the back of your laptop screen in roughly the next six to eight years. It would then be a simple matter for your local airport or even Starbucks to embed the companion power transmitters right into the walls so you can get a quick charge without ever opening up your laptop bag.