Personal Computers of 2009: Nine Predictions

Some like to review the year ended in an attempt to find certain trends or experience certain events again. But we decided to summarize our expectations for the coming year. In 2009 we seem to be going to bid adieu to Windows XP and get very stylish personal computers, we will see the rise of two polar worlds: ultra-cheap PCs and higher-end multimedia systems and also witness a number of other things that will define the PC world going forward.

by Anton Shilov
12/31/2008 | 10:33 AM

The year 2008 has just a few hours left and it seems to be the right time to think about the 2009. Despite of the economic crisis, technologies will once again become more excellent and demands of end-users will become even higher.

 

The 2009 is unlikely to become a year of booming personal computers (PCs) sales, but it may set certain trends that will considerably change the market in 2009 and going forward. In this short editorial we will try to determine those trends and share some of our expectations for the next year.

Pret-a-Porte Personal Computers Set to Get More Stylish

Personal computers have come a long way from dull grey boxes made by IBM to ultra-trendy systems like Voodoo Envy, Dell XPS One or Sony Vaio. Unfortunately, average mainstream personal computers still cannot boast with extravagant design, but that is going to change next year, we believe.

PCs are now “good enough” for almost any task that a typical end-user might want to run. It will be hard, if possible at all, for computer manufacturers to sell mainstream personal computers by advertising higher-performance microprocessors, larger storage or more capable graphics cards. As a result, many of large PC suppliers as well as significant local computer makers will put a lot of emphasis on making trendy personal computers.

Besides fashionable design, the new PCs are likely to become smaller in 2009 overall as end-users now value desk space more than ever.

Since there are many standard PC form-factors as well as a wide variety of components available on the market, it will not be hard for PC manufacturers to roll-out stylish and small form-factor systems with decent performance, feature-set and at price-points affordable enough for mainstream market. It is noteworthy that all such systems will either feature microATX, ITX or proprietary mainboard form-factors, but not BTX, which appears to be not popular at all.

At present only pretty expensive mobile PCs use truly high-quality materials, such as anodized aluminum, wood, carbon fiber and so on. While we would not expect to find those materials on mainstream systems, as consumers are cutting their spending, high-end PCs with a touch of wood or carbon fiber will get a little more affordable for sure. At the same time, computer makers who offer customers to choose artwork on their mobile systems now, such as Dell or Hewlett Packard, are also likely to advertise this option more aggressively.

In fact, we would expect high-profile design studios to tap the PC space with their designs. Porsche Design has already created a monitor for Samsung Electronics, Armani Casa is working with Samsung on HDTV line and chances are that we are going to see PCs created by the greatest artists on the planet.

It is interesting to note that Asustek Computer and Intel Corp. have launched WePC.com web-site in a bid to find out preferences of end-users as well as their design ideas. This is an important indicator that computer developers do understand the future of PCs as well as want to understand specific needs of customers.

Hard Times Push Light Systems

During the times of economic downturn end-users tend to save money amid uncertainties. As a result, some end-users who were looking at inexpensive notebooks may now start buying netbooks instead.

Originally, notebooks were designed for road-warriors and were not intended for typical end-users and multimedia enthusiasts. However, as many people started to value mobility and small form-factors (compared to desktops) of notebooks as well as because of aggressive ad campaigns of Centrino early this decade, mobile computers started to gain popularity. Nowadays every family member may have her or his own personal computer without installing a rather huge desktop.

But while consumers have embraced laptops, average user’s demands did not evolve to high-definition multimedia experience or gaming. All the things that many need are limited to Internet browsing, email and social networks reading, which do not require high-performance; hence, instead of getting inexpensive fully-featured mobile computers many consumers will switch to cheap netbooks because of the economic slump.

Even Sony Electronics, which has been focusing on expensive PCs with its Vaio series, is about to introduce its Vaio P-series, which will support Windows Vista, feature 1600x768 screen resolution and is likely to have decent performance.


Image by Cnet web-site

Arguably, but the rise of netbooks in 2009 may be a threat for companies oriented on selling laptops to consumers. As a result, they will have to quickly refocus themselves on selling netbooks instead, as the demand is likely to be rising. One of the challenges here is that all existing netbooks feature proprietary designs and built-in processors, hence, it is almost impossible to customize netbooks for local PC assemblers. As a result, we would expect global netbook vendors to offer very broad netbook families.

Netbooks themselves are likely to tend to close the gap between them and notebooks: we would expect 8” – 10” normal resolution screens, dual-core processors and richer multimedia capabilities. In fact, we would not expect Intel Atom processors to power all netbooks on the market: there are a lot of consumers who demand adequate performance levels that Atom simply cannot provide. The price of such machines will go up, but as the times are tough, it is supposed to be below the cost of notebooks or high-end business-oriented sub-notebooks, which may be just what the doctor ordered considering current market conditions.

Solid State Drives Will Hardly Get Solid Market Share

Solid state drives have been around for years, but only recently consumer-oriented vendors started to push flash-based storage aimed at home users. The price of flash memory is dropping and it is natural that SSDs now make more sense than several years ago. But we still are pretty much skeptic about solid state drives on consumer market.

There are two factors that keep consumers away from solid state drives: price and reliability. While the SSDs do not feature any mechanic parts, every single flash bit has limited number of write cycles, therefore, SSDs will inevitably malfunction at some point. This, in addition to the price, which is ten times higher than that of hard disk drives with similar storage space, keeps a lot of people away from SSDs.

Based on what we do know about SSDs due in 2009, there will be no revolution in pricing or reliability of solid state drives next year. Of course, we will see 512GB (500GB) solid state drives from companies like Toshiba; moreover, perhaps, some high-end SSDs will even hit the magic 1TB milestone. Nevertheless, the large-capacity SSDs will remain very expensive, whereas low-capacity flash-based drives will hardly be in high-demand among mainstream consumers (although some enthusiasts are likely to adopt them).

Performance enthusiasts this year got Western Digital VelociRaptor hard drive, which offers incredible performance with all the benefits of hard disk drive technology: affordable cost, reliability, capacity and familiarity. If entry-level SSDs start to challenge those high-performance HDDs, manufacturers will introduce even speedier models with faster spindle speed and larger caches.

The cost-per-gigabyte of hard drives is dramatically lower than the cost of a gigabyte on an SSD. Obviously, the cost-per-gigabyte is dropping rapidly for both HDDs and SSDs, thanks to newer process technologies, but not so rapidly to make the latter considerably more competitive next year. As a result, we expect SSDs to remain a niche market, at least in 2009.

Blu-Ray Drive for Every High-End PC

It will take years for the consumer electronics industry to fully adopt Blu-ray disc (BD) technology that enables movies in 1920x1080 (1080p) resolution, but personal computer industry is highly likely to embrace the standard much faster.

End-users have been adopting larger displays with higher resolutions throughout the history of PCs and next year there will be loads of 23”, 24” or 26” displays featuring 1920x1080 or 1920x1200 resolution. Even though PCs are usually used for work or video-games, many do watch movies on their computers. But DVD movies look extremely bad on large full-HD screens and many users either consider downloading movies in 1280x720 (720p) resolution, or buy a Blu-ray disc drive and start to collect BD movies.

At present Blu-ray drives start at $100, which is just a fraction of the cost of a high-end personal computer, and next year such drives will be even more affordable. As a result, higher-end gaming systems will start to sport them by default sometimes in 2009 just to declare another “feature” to drive sales amid economic turmoil.

We do not expect all owners of BD-enabled PCs to rapidly stop buying DVDs and get Blu-ray movies instead (just because of the fact that Blu-ray discs still cost considerably more than DVDs), but with drive inside their high-end PCs, they will definitely start using the technology and see all the advantages it will bring.

High-Definition to Drive Demand for Higher-Performance Systems

In fact, there are two parts of the story with high-definition displays and Blu-ray. Some consumers will get Blu-ray drives because they buy high-end systems. But there are some people, who will get high-performance computers because of high-definition videos, large screens and Blu-ray.

Large high-resolution screens capable of displaying high-quality movies will also be used for video games. Considering the fact that not a lot of gamers like to set non-native resolutions on their LCD screens, it is highly likely that they will buy higher-performance graphics cards capable of running their favourite games in 1920x1200 resolution as entry-level graphics cards are merely capable of running modern video-games in 1280x1024 resolution. Moreover, large displays are likely to spur demand towards higher-performance personal computers in general since fast graphics card requires proper microprocessor.

According to a market observer, there are consumers who connect their 52” screens to PCs and who naturally need very high performance to really enjoy the experience.

“There is a growing audience of PC gamers with their [Blu-ray enabled] systems hooked up to 52” HD television sets. As prices continue to drop on LCD televisions, those numbers will explode,” said David Cummings, director of product marketing for discrete desktop graphics at graphics products group of AMD in a recent interview

In fact, we are pretty much confident in demand for standalone graphics cards even amid economic crisis: 1920x1200 resolution seems to be on track to become the next 1280x1024 and everyone will need a proper graphics adapter to actually use this resolution.

Energy Efficiency May Become Significant Feature of Desktop PCs

Energy efficiency becomes very important these days now that computers have become an integral part of daily routine of virtually the whole planet. While energy efficiency has been hardly important on desktops so far, in 2009 consumers may actually become interested in “green systems”.

There are a number of reasons for the growing attraction of energy-efficient personal computers: such systems are usually much smaller and much quieter compared to mainstream desktops. Moreover, smaller devices are usually more stylish and, as we determined above, end-users like visually attractive personal computers.

If one personal computer or TV-set does not consume a lot of energy in general and the replacement of every single one with less power-hungry devices will not result into considerable savings, but if to replace all home electronics with energy-efficient products, savings may become very significant.

Increasing popularity of energy-efficient systems will call for hardware manufacturers to reconsider their design priorities for new products. Both Advanced Micro Devices and Intel Corp. may offer broader lineup of microprocessors with below-65W power consumption and also introduce new power-saving techniques to desktop chips and boast with ultra-efficient products.

Graphics chips designers ATI, graphics products group of AMD, and Nvidia Corp. are also likely to put more emphasis on low-power GPUs that still deliver decent performance. In fact, hybrid multi-GPU technologies have potential to combine high-performance discrete graphics card and built-in graphics core bringing energy efficiency of the IGP and power of the GPU into a single box.

PC manufacturers are likely to start advertising power consumption of their systems as well in order to attract clients and consequently there will be machines with “green” CPUs, GPUs, hard disk drives and other components.

Windows 7: Hello to Touch Interfaces, Mainstream 64-bit and Good Bye, Windows XP

For a number of reasons Microsoft Windows Vista operating system (OS) has not become a true substitute for Windows XP. Perhaps, it is all about conservatism of end-users or maybe system requirements were too high. But it’s evident: the pace of adoption of Windows Vista is not enough to make this OS truly popular. Microsoft hopes that Windows 7 will finally bury the XP. We also think so.


Example of Windows 7 touch-interface.
Image courtesy of a
blog.

In fact, Windows 7 will be much more than just another OS from Microsoft as we would expect it to drive numerous innovations down to the mainstream computer market. Here are just a few of them:

Platformization: The Big Thing to Get Even Bigger

Whether we want it or not, but the economic crisis actually defines quite a lot of business and technology decisions. In 2009 computer manufacturers will have to deliver the best possible products very rapidly to market. In order to achieve this, PC makers will need a robust set of chips that are designed to work with each other. As a result, we’ll see importance of pre-defined platforms to increase.

Presently both Advanced Micro Devices and Intel Corp. can provide central processing units (CPUs) as well as core-logic sets developed to work with each other flawlessly along with reference designs for mainboards and/or whole systems. This greatly simplifies development of modern personal computers and allows PC suppliers to bring the latest technology to market as soon as possible.

Due to the economic slump, PC vendors will have to achieve several goals:

The goals are likely to be achieved, which means hard times for AMD’s ATI unit as well as Nvidia Corp. At this point of time Intel can provide fast CPUs and decent chipsets with integrated graphics, which will be very important in cases of both desktop and mobile computers. Meanwhile, ATI can either sell AMD-compatible chipsets or graphics processing units (which are naturally compatible with any platform), which will be in demand by performance desktop systems, but will be hardly used by mobile computers. Nvidia seems to have similar troubles as ATI: its chipset business is likely to face very hard challenge with AMD’s and  Intel’s, whereas its mobile graphics chips will have to fight a way through PC makers’ intentions to make PCs as affordable as possible. On the desktop side things are unlikely to change much for Nvidia, though: people will need proper graphics cards, as we observed earlier.

Even though concentration on platforms will be forced by economic crisis in 2009, PC vendors are very likely to adopt the same policy going forward, which will change the market considerably. We should wait and see whether such situation will bring any benefits to actual end-users after 2009.

The Year of Multi-GPU, Multi-Core and The Dawn of Entertainment Processing

Multi-GPU setups and multi-core microprocessors have been on the market for several years now, but the computing experience overall did not change much due to the lack of software that takes advantage of the sophisticated hardware and certain drawbacks that certain technologies do have. But it seems that next year everything will begin to change and games will finally start to take advantage of extreme computing power of today’s PCs and we may encounter completely new paradigm: entertainment processing.

Graphics processors today are much more than just chips able to draw 3D visuals on the screen. All developers of GPUs are talking about general-purpose processing on graphics chips and this will inevitably change video games drastically. Nowadays Nvidia touts physics processing on GPUs and some games are about to take advantage of PhysX technology shortly. Meanwhile, ATI demonstrated artificial intelligence processing on GPUs.

If graphics processors have to compute graphics, physics and AI, then this chip should be extremely powerful: modern GPUs can barely provide decent frame-rate in full-HD resolution in contemporary video games and it is hard to believe that the chips have enough computing power for two additional tasks.

It should be noted that processors processing AI, graphics, physics and other highly-parallel tasks cannot be called juist "graphics processing units", as they do much more than just graphics. As a result, we would expect the emergence of entertainment processing platforms.

Considering the fact that it becomes harder and harder to create “mega-chips”, we believe that multi-GPU setups will get more and more popular next year both as a result of higher demands towards graphics performance and potential emergence of games that compute physics effects or other things on GPUs. If each GPU chip is assigned to a certain task, then such multi-GPU setups will not have certain drawbacks associated with modern multi-chip rendering techniques, moreover, it should be unnecessary to have several similar GPUs in a system: simplistic AI and physics algorithms should not demand a high-end graphics board.

Needless to say that with necessity for even more graphics and processing horsepower, the demand towards performance components will at least be flat in 2009.