November 02, 2017

The need for speed

Having a living fossil on hand—a twelve-year-old IBM Thinkpad T42—prompted me to do a little benchmarking to see how far the technology has come.

The Intel 8088 in the original IBM PC (1981) clocked in at .33 MIPS (millions of instructions per second). Compare that to the Thinkpad's Pentium M Centrino processor at 7,400 MIPS. A little division reveals that the now old and creaky Pentium M is 25,000 times more powerful than the lowly 8088.

MIPS is a less useful yardstick these days, so I'll use Passmark's CPUMark score. The CPUMark for the Pentium M is 414.

Lets compare apples mostly to apples and stick with a mid-range "economy" laptop configuration: an Intel Core i5-7200U paired with the HD Graphics 620 chipset. A Dell laptop configured with 8 GB RAM and a 1 TB hard drive goes for a third the price of the Thinkpad.

The CPUMark for the Core i5-7200U is 4689, making it ten times more powerful than the Pentium M. But raw CPU benchmarks are not the best way to measure the power of the whole package.

Consider the graphics processing unit (GPU).

The original IBM PC supported 80-column monochrome displays and CGA graphics (320×200 pixels in 4 colors). The Thinkpad T42 has XGA graphics (1024x768 pixels in 16,777,216 colors). These days, pretty much any GPU can drive any resolution. What matters is how fast data can be written to the screen.

The G3D benchmark for the Thinkpad's ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 is 4. Four. Hence the issues playing HD video. The G3D benchmark for the integrated Intel HD Graphics 620 is 945, over 200 times faster. A cheap add-on desktop GPU like the Radeon RX 550 has a G3D benchmark of 3654.

Even Intel's low-end integrated GPUs can output 4K video. The challenge of writing pixels to the screen in True Color and HD has long been addressed. Modern GPUs are powerful computers within the computer designed to decode HD video streams and render 3D computer graphics.

Big performance gains have turned up elsewhere on the motherboard as well.

The PCI Express bus runs twenty times faster than the old PCI/IDE bus. DDR4 SDRAM runs at least ten times faster than DDR1. In a few more years, the SSD should completely replace the slowest component in a PC, the hard drive. That will boost data transfer speeds another order of magnitude.

There is still room to grow on the CPU/GPU front. The high-end Intel Core i9 and AMD Ryzen Threadripper CPUs deliver CPUMarks north of 23,000. Ditto the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 Ti, with a G3D benchmark of 13,300.

And both currently cost more than the rest of the computer.

Based Moore's Law to date, those prices should decline sharply in the coming years. So as 14 nanometer manufacturing becomes more affordable, we can expect to gain another couple orders of magnitude in raw performance at the consumer level.

At some point, though, quantum and thermodynamic realities will curtail Moore's Law.

Quantum tunneling kicks in with a vengeance below 7 nanometers. Instead of building smaller, the current solution is to "stack" silicon wafers on top of each other, like a high-rise. But the necessity of dissipating heat imposes limitations of its own, which is how we began this discussion.

Microsoft in particular is battling a more pressing technological, or rather, marketing limit. Windows 7, released in 2009, still dominates all other desktop operating systems by a huge margin, with almost half of total market share.

Intel's Core i5 and i7 CPUs have been on the market as long as Windows 7. Unless you're a gamer or power user, there's been no compelling reason to upgrade since. The next PC I buy could be the last PC I will ever need. What will Microsoft and Intel have to sell me in another dozen years?

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