CES 2010: GPUs, SSDs, Economic Malaise And Computer Upgrades
One of a series of planned posts from the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show…
The timing of this particular writeup is specifically prompted by two pieces I’ve recently seen elsewhere; ‘Kingston SSDNow V 30GB Flash Drive for $80‘ on Gizmodo earlier today, and ‘Old computers rejuvenated with SSD upgrades‘ a few days back at Ars Technica. But its seeds were sown by AMD’s ATI Technologies division and Micron Technology during meetings I held with both of them at CES last week. And truth be told, I’ve been pondering the topic ever since the 2009 CES, when I met with Sandisk.
Today’s topic concerns computers, specifically when it makes sense to buy a new one versus just upgrading some of the subsystems of the one you already own. Judging from yesterday’s after-market-close financial announcement by Intel, someone out there’s buying lots of new computers, and I certainly welcome the resultant tech economy upturn. But the broader economy remains mired in malaise, no matter that various economists, government officials and analysts report that the recession’s technically over. In fact, the unemployment rate is expected to rise in the months to come, as folks who previously gave up looking (and therefore were no longer counted in the unemployment ranks) decide to polish off their resumes and re-enter the marketplace. And PC prices are also forecasted to rise, mostly a result of the mass migration to newer Intel CPUs that support scarce (therefore costly) DDR3 SDRAM.
So if cash is tight, how can you supercharge the system already in your possession? Adding more system memory (to the practical limits of the chipset and operating system support), is an obvious move, especially if your computer’s currently so starved that it’s relying on performance-strapping virtual memory paging using the HDD. But speaking of which…what about that HDD? Especially if the computer’s in a corporate environment, wherein network storage finds extensive use, the local mass storage requirements are probably fairly modest. And, as my own testing has confirmed, a migration to a flash memory-based solid-state drive (SSD) can sometimes result in a noticeable performance increase, depending on the usage model. For more comparative benchmark results, and in addition to the above-mentioned Ars Technica piece, check out Macworld’s ‘RunCore Pro IV SSD for MacBook Air‘. So $80 for 30 GBytes’ worth of a speedy SSD…tempting?
And while your system’s partially disassembled, how about also upgrading its graphics capabilities? Game players out there know well that successive generations of titles make incremental performance and quality demands on graphics chips. But my thoughts are actually more aligned elsewhere, to the other things GPUs are now capable of, especially with the emergence of industry-standard APIs such as operating system-agnostic OpenCL and Windows Vista and 7’s DirectCompute. I’m thinking of GPU-shouldered still image and video decoding, encoding and other processing tasks. I’m thinking of audio and physics processing hand-offs to the graphics subsystem. I’m even thinking about more embryonic GPGPU capabilities such as virus scanning, database sorting, and voice recognition. In general, I’m thinking of anything that a massively parallel, shader-programmable ‘coprocessor’ might be able to accelerate beyond the software-only abilities of the system CPU.
Consider, for example, the mid-range DirectX 11-supportive GPUs that AMD’s ATI Technologies division released just yesterday. With prices starting at $100, they’re certainly more economical than even the lowest-end brand new computer. And no monkeying around; they appear to be quite easy to install:
AMD’s already begun to extend its 5000-series DirectX 11 capabilities to the mobile market, as well. And although NDAs currently preclude me from explaining the situation in detail, it’s probably no surprise to you that the company plans in short order to spread DirectX 11 support across all possible price points for both desktop and laptop systems.
Your thoughts, readers, on when it makes sense to upgrade versus completely replace a Mac or PC?