The most hyped tech news isn't always the most important. Having had a few days to dwell on what CES 2013 meant for computing, and for mobile computing in particular, we've settled on some less-than-obvious highlights. So, if you'd like to know how Intel stole the show but not our hearts; how Qualcomm's weird keynote was overshadowed by a late, secondary announcement from Samsung; and how some of the most exciting PC trends were mainly conspicuous by their absence, then please read on. It'll be like juice with bits, but only the bits that matter.
Intel dominated the start of this year's show, and for good reason. If we were in a purely practical frame of mind, we'd say that our next laptop purchase would most likely have Intel inside. Or, more precisely, Haswell. Or even more precisely, the 10-watt version of Haswell, which is destined to appear in hybrids and touch-enabled laptops by the fall.
"Our next laptop purchase would most likely have Intel inside."
By cutting down on the 17-watt consumption of current Ultrabooks and MacBook Airs, we could see a big leap in battery life -- potentially taking us over the 10-hour threshold that we've been burning people's ears about for so long. A 10-watt TDP could also mean a reduction in weight. Less need for cooling and ventilation increases the possibility of serious x86 computing in devices that weigh significantly less than two pounds (1kg) even including their keyboards -- although that's just optimistic speculation on our part. So long as performance stays broadly inline with, say, an existing Ivy Bridge Core i5 laptop, Haswell will be a bar worth drinking at.
But here's the thing: Haswell wasn't really a CES revelation. It was actually announced back at IDF. The only fresh meat was a glimpse at a prototype Haswell hybrid called North Cape. The device's tablet half was attractively thin at 10mm, which compares very well to the 13.5mm thickness of Microsoft's Surface Pro. However, we weren't allowed to play with North Cape or even hold it. We're not moaning, since CES is often out of sync with the product cycles of big PC companies. Nevertheless, our Intel experience contrasted in a big way with what we saw from AMD.
Not only did AMD's people let us play with their Temash reference hybrid, they let us play DiRT Showdown. That's a direct route to the heart of any tech blogger and it's especially impressive because the quad-core chip in that device consumes just eight watts. The hybrid even had a brand-new Radeon HD 8000M-series GPU inside, which yielded smooth frame rates and served to highlight the relative weakness of Intel's integrated HD 4000 graphics -- not to mention the even weaker visuals we've seen in some Clover Trail hybrids.
So yes, Intel is big and rich enough to cover the whole range of wattages, all the way from Haswell (10W and upwards) to Bay Trail (3W to 12W) and Clover Trail+ (around 1.5W). But AMD has somehow managed to gather up its depleted resources and plant itself smack dab in the middle of the field. It already appears to have found that category-defying sweet spot between PC and mobile. In fact, even the current-gen Hondo chip (aka the Z60) seems to pull that off, with a 4.5W TDP that we put to work in our hands-on with Vizio's Windows 8 Tablet PC. That sort of energy consumption is potentially low enough to yield decent battery life and avoid active cooling, but high enough to provide a fluid Windows 8 experience -- a mixture that earns AMD a rightful place in our CES cocktail.
While we're on the topic of category confusion, or actually just confusion in general, we may as well broach Qualcomm's keynote. A week later, it's still not clear what Big Bird, Guillermo del Toro, Desmond Tutu and Alice Eve (from Star Trek Into Darkness) really brought to the chip designer's live show, and frankly Steve Ballmer's appearance was awkward too. But the confusion runs even deeper than that.
Qualcomm represents the cutting edge of ARM-based chip innovation, and not for a split second do we doubt the technical achievement of the new Snapdragon 800 and 600. These processors will take an already excellent chip -- the S4 Pro -- and give it as much as 75 percent more CPU grunt and 50 percent better graphics, in addition to a doubling of GPU compute. That's a recipe for almost guaranteed success, but at the same time there's a critical chapter missing from Qualcomm's narrative.
"There's a critical chapter missing from Qualcomm's narrative."
The void in Qualcomm's presentation is this: if the Snapdragon 800 is really as amazing as it looks, why isn't it being put forward as a chip for hard-nosed computing? As something that could encroach on the applications and form factors traditionally owned by x86? ARM-based laptops and hybrids would have better battery life and be significantly cheaper and lighter than Wintel offerings and yet they've barely received any mention at CES. When Raj Talluri visited the Engadget Stage, he put nearly all the emphasis on 4K and LTE -- great for smartphones and smart TVs, but slightly less important for productivity.
NVIDIA's CEO Jen-Hsun Huang maintained a similar smartphone and tablet focus during his keynote and the unveiling of Tegra 4. We were shown how the next-gen Tegra can load up websites faster than any other competitor, for example, which is cool but doesn't mean much to those who want to create rather than consume on their ARM devices. We're talking about things like batch processing photos, for example, or handling large spreadsheets, or just doing numerous things at once in multiple windows. We'd still rate NVIDIA's showing at CES pretty highly, though, because the Project Shield Tegra 4-based console-in-a-controller raised the profile of ARM-based gaming, which in turn can only do good things for ARM-based computing in general.
Meanwhile, Samsung just chilled out. It waited until two days later and then, during its second keynote, waltzed in and reminded everyone how well it's faring in the ARM computing game -- and in comparison to Qualcomm in particular. The Korean manufacturer already has its Exynos Dual chip in one incredibly cheap, productive and popular laptop -- namely the latest Chromebook, which runs Google's Chrome OS. It's already moved to LPDDR3 memory with PC-like 12.8GB/s bandwidth. But the announcement of the Exynos 5 Octa takes things to an even higher level.
The Octa deploys ARM's big.LITTLE design, which allows it to switch between four high-power 1.8GHz Cortex-A15 cores when there's a heavy workload, and four low-power 1.2GHz Cortex-A7 cores when endurance is needed instead. This would be perfectly suited to a hybrid machine with a tablet mode mostly running on the A7 cores during media consumption, and a docked mode going hand-in-hand with more complex tasks that call on the A15 cores, possibly with extra power delivered by a second battery housed in the keyboard module. There are many different possibilities with big.LITTLE, but all could make a low-power, lightweight and cheap hybrid a more realistic proposition than it was before. And that's why Samsung wins out on this round.
Absent friends (and one who turned up)
Like Will.i.am told a throng of reporters in Las Vegas, revealing a degree of wisdom that isn't especially visible in his choice of investments, "it's much harder to see what isn't there than to see what is." Or in other words, progress relies on people spotting gaps in the market. And what was missing from CES was a sense of how operating systems are going to catch up with what the latest ARM-based hardware has to offer. Android is huge, of course, but it's not window-based and it's not especially friendly towards the QWERTY / mouse / touchpad form factors that most people still rely on.
Windows RT is something that desktop and laptop users could feel at home with, and Microsoft's clout could stimulate more software developers to think about ARM instead of just x86. A Surface RT sequel running on Tegra 4 instead of Tegra 3 could be beautiful. But that's a lot of maybes. In reality, there was barely any sign of RT at this year's show. Aside from some hype from Ballmer at Qualcomm's keynote, the only major news which did (sort of) come out of CES was negative: Samsung won't be bringing its own RT hybrids -- like the ATIV Tab -- to the States, due to weak demand.
Fortunately for us, someone was around to take up RT's empty chair. He even let us point cameras at him and ask him questions on the Engadget Stage. His name? Mark Shuttleworth. A man who is acutely aware of the OS gap and who is on the cusp of actually doing something about it, by expanding Ubuntu Linux to ARM-powered devices.
Ubuntu for Android remains one of the most promising efforts we've seen to blend Android and a window-based UI in a way that makes sense for hybrid form factors. It's just a shame that we haven't heard much about it in almost a year. The more recently announced Ubuntu for smartphones, alongside the separate success of Raspberry Pi, should only increase developers' interest in coding for this type of system. We'd love for this to gain momentum during the coming 12 months, so that by 2014 even really big software houses (like Adobe, for instance) might start taking it seriously. But whatever happens, it's nice to have the feeling that there's still room for surprises in this industry, and that the year ahead isn't just going to unfold according to some preordained plan.