The chip that could transform IT

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By Farhad Manjoo

New York Times

For decades, chipmaking giant Intel has ruled as one of Silicon Valley’s most technically advanced companies.

It was Intel co-founder Gordon Moore who predicted that computer chips would continue to get incredibly more powerful. And it was Intel’s products, the x86 line of microprocessors at the heart of just about every personal computer, that turned Moore’s prophecy into a “law” of technology. The promise that every year Intel’s new chips would be much faster than its old chips set the pace for advancements across the industry.

But somewhere over the past decade Intel has lost the plot. It has been blinded by new trends – the growing utility of graphics processors, widespread adoption of mobile devices – and plagued by a series of embarrassing operational delays. Even more surprising than Intel’s slippage was the company that succeeded it as a forerunner of processors. Meeting with employees earlier this year, Pat Gelsinger, Intel’s new CEO, was reluctant to even pronounce the enemy’s name.

Cupertino, Calif., Is of course the homeland of Apple, whose emphasis on design, aesthetics and usability has often made it vulnerable to Gelsinger’s implication that its products are more fashionable. than capable. But last month Apple unveiled new laptops built around its own custom-designed processors, the M1 Pro and M1 Max, which made such digs completely ridiculous.

Early reviews of Apple’s new machines were so enthusiastic – “the most powerful laptops we’ve ever seen”, “considerably better than they have any business” being “just plain absurd” – that I feared. to only be disappointed. when I got my hands on one and it turned out to be as frustrating as all computers inevitably always are.

I was not deceived. I was overwhelmed. I’ve been using a new MacBook Pro with Apple’s fastest new chip, the M1 Max, for about two weeks, and I can’t remember the last time a laptop impressed me like this. In fact, I don’t think a laptop has ever really impressed me, because it’s just a laptop.

This ridiculously fast laptop, however, made me think long and hard about what was to come. In recent years, some tech scholars have expressed concern that Moore’s Law is running out of steam. At one point, experts theorized that microchips would start to hit fundamental physical limits, making further performance gains extremely difficult. And because processors are essentially the engines of computers, their impending limit also implied a possible limit in the usefulness of computing.

I called several experts to ask what Apple’s innovation tells us about the future of computing. The short answer: we still have a way to go before we hit a wall.

M1 chips make laptops as powerful as some of the fastest desktops on the market, yet so efficient that their battery life exceeds that of any other laptop. Chips portend a future that is absolutely saturated with computing power – with extremely powerful processors not only in traditional computers and smartphones, but also in cars, drones, virtual reality machines and just about anything that works. to electricity.

How Apple made these gains is an interesting business and technical story. In 2008, about a year after the release of the first iPhone, Apple bought a small semiconductor startup to build specialty chips for its phones. For many years, Intel chips were designed primarily for stationary machines like servers and personal computers. To reach their maximum speeds, Intel processors had to consume a lot of electricity and create a lot of heat. But Apple’s most important products are mobile, powered by batteries, so consuming a lot of power was not ideal. Its chip designers had to take a radically different approach. Rather than maximizing raw power, Apple aimed to create chips optimized for power. and Efficiency.

The technical means used by Apple to achieve this combination will sound like geek gibberish to anyone who is not educated in semiconductor theory. Overall, however, Apple’s systems use many specialized processing units and are optimized to perform more “out of order” operations, a technical term that essentially means they can run more code simultaneously.

The result is something like the difference between a muscle car and a Tesla. The muscle car reaches high speeds with a huge engine that burns a lot of gasoline. The Tesla can reach even higher speeds while consuming less power because its electric motor is inherently more efficient than a gasoline engine. For years, Intel made muscle cars; Apple’s great innovation was to build the Tesla out of computer chips.

Apple has also benefited from huge economies of scale. With iPhone being one of the highest grossing products ever to sell, the company could afford to invest billions in a custom chip operation, then reuse its iPhone chips for the iPad, Apple TV and now. Mac.

Apple’s investments have helped spark a new race in the chip business. Intel is investing $ 20 billion in new chip manufacturing plants, and other chipmakers – Samsung and TSMC, which makes processors for Apple – are collectively investing hundreds of billions of dollars to increase capacity.

If I sound a little too giddy about microchips, it’s because there haven’t been a lot of groundbreaking technical innovations in the tech industry in years. Facebook is wrecking democracies, Google keeps squeezing more money from ads, and each new iPhone is getting better and better than the last.

Apple’s processors feel really new. For better or for worse, they will dramatically improve the capabilities of our devices over the next few years. The fastest phones today are more powerful than the computers of just a few years ago; Andrei Frumusanu, who covered Apple’s new processors for tech news site Anandtech, told me he expects Apple to be able to continue making similar gains at least over the course of of the next decade.

And other tech companies will be spending a lot to catch up. After seeing what Apple did, Frumusanu said, “everyone is freaking out”.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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