What to expect at Computex this week

One of the world's largest tech shows takes place in Taiwan this week at an unusual time for the industry. The PC is under pressure, but this is prompting lots of experimentation with new designs, lower prices, and different software platforms. And Computex is the place to see these fresh ideas.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Computex, one of the world’s largest technology conferences, takes place in Taiwan this week. This year’s show comes at an unusual time for the industry.

The PC market remains stagnant despite Intel’s efforts to revive it, first with Ultrabooks and most recently with 2-in-1 devices (initiatives which were both announced at previous Computex shows). Much of the action in smartphones has shifted to low-cost devices and even tablets seem to be growing at a slower pace. The industry is looking for the next big thing but leading candidates such as wearables are still in the early stages.

Despite this, Computex is expected to draw 1,700 companies and some 130,000 visitors to Taipei. The PC supply chain, which is centered around Taiwan, may be under pressure, but this also creates an opportunity for lots of experimentation, and Computex is the place to see these fresh ideas.

After some delays due to manufacturing challenges, Intel is expected to announce its next-generation Core processor family, known as Broadwell. These are the industry’s first chips made on a 14nm process, using Intel’s 3D FinFET transistors, and in comparison to the current fourth-generation Core (Haswell) chips they should reduce power and deliver better graphics performance.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich recently said that Broadwell will likely miss Back to School season, but be available in PCs in time for the holidays.

In mobile, Bay Trail has so far fallen short of expectations, but Intel says it will be in Android and Windows tablets at Computex, as well as some 130 low-cost desktops, laptops and Chromebooks.

Bay Trail is followed by Merrifield and Moorefield, which are designed for both smartphones and tablets. These chips use the same 22nm process and Silvermont CPU cores, but rely on Imagination’s PowerVR Series 6 graphics, rather than Intel’s own Gen7 graphics. The dual-core Merrifed (Atom Z3460/Z3480) was slated to arrive first, but it seems like the quad-core Moorefield (Atom Z3560/Z3580) could be first to show in a device, the Asus MeMo Pad 8 tablet sold by KDDI in Japan.

I’ll be looking for other Merrifield or Moorefield devices on the show floor to see whether Intel is making any progress in mobile. Earlier this week the company announced a deal with China’s Rockchip to push Intel’s SoFIA processors into lower-priced Android tablets, but these won’t arrive until sometime next year.

AMD is expected to announce the mobile version of its latest mainstream processor, code-named Kaveri, at Computex. Kaveri replaces Richland, and since the desktop parts are already shipping, the basic elements--an APU (Accelerated Processing Unit) with an enhanced Steamroller CPU core and modern GCN graphics--are already well known.

The company briefly posted details of the new chips earlier this week, but then removed them from its site. Assuming the lineup was accurate, the mobile Kaveri lineup will include a single 17-watt A6 APU, and several 19- and 35-watt APUs for faster and larger laptops.

Interestingly it looks like AMD will for the first time use on the FX Series branding, previously reserved for its high-performance CPUs, on these mobile APUs. The move isn’t too surprising since AMD no longer has a roadmap for future CPUs, and both AMD and Intel have already been blurring the lines between their microarchitectures and brands in low-power and mainstream chips.

In April, AMD announced its latest low-power processors, known as Beema and Mullins and designed for entry-level laptops and tablets, respectively. Beema and Mullins are a relatively minor update over the previous Kabini and Temash APUs--they use the same TSMC 28nm process and basic CPU core design--and the main benefit is reduced power consumption.

Like Intel’s Bay Trail, these chips haven’t really a made a dent in mobile and AMD is downplaying tablets and pushing them almost exclusively for ultrathin and low-cost laptops. For now AMD is also at a disadvantage in mobile because its platform doesn’t support Android tablets or Connected Standby features on Windows devices.

Nvidia will be demonstrating the first tablet based on its latest mobile chip, the Tegra K1. The Xiaomi’s MiPad has a 7.9-inch display with 2048x1536 resolution, 2GB of memory, either 16GB ($240) or 64GB ($270) of storage and runs Android KitKat.

The Tegra K1 is manufactured on TSMC’s 28nm HPM process and combines four Cortex-A15 CPU cores (and a fifth power-saver core) with 192 CUDA cores--the first time Nvidia has used its high-performance PC Graphics in its mobile SoC. Later this year Nvidia also plans to release a version of the K1 with its own Denver CPU design.

Although Computex is a big PC gaming show--with lots of motherboards, memory and other high-end components on display--neither AMD nor Nvidia is likely to make any major PC graphics announcements.AMD announced its Hawaii graphics family in late 2013, and it has only recently started shipping in volume. Last week Nvidia began shipping its GeForce GTX Titan Z, a monster of a dual-GPU card that costs $3,000.

Both companies are waiting on the semiconductor foundries to deliver 20nm process technology at decent yields in order to roll out the next generation of GPUs, and that is unlikely to happen until later this year,

Instead most of the action at Computex this year will likely be at the opposite end of the market in cheaper PCs--especially 2-in-1s--and Chrome OS devices.

In the run-up to the show, Microsoft wrote in a blog post about how it is helping customers make different types of devices at lower prices by making Windows and Windows Phone from on tablets with screens smaller than 9 inches and by reducing the hardware requirements with Windows 8.1 Update to as little as 1GB of memory and 16GB of storage. Last year Android was everywhere at Computex, and these changes are clearly meant to make Windows more competitive in this part of the market.

HP announced today its Back to School lineup, which includes two convertibles, the Envy x360 and Pavilion x360; a detachable, the Split x2; an 11.6-inch Chromebook; and an Android-powered laptop, the SlateBook, with a 14-inch display and Nvidia Tegra 4 processor.

A few days ago, Toshiba announced a new lineup including Android tablets starting around $100; Windows 8 tablets starting around $200; a pair of Satellite detachables, starting at under $600; and a premium Satellite Radius convertible with a 15.6-inch folding display.

Last month Intel and Google held an event to announce 20 new Chrome OS devices running Bay Trail and Haswell Core processors from Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, LG Electronics and Toshiba.

In short, there will still be plenty of new PCs, but there will be lots more variety in terms of the designs, prices and software platforms including Chrome OS and Android. The PC isn’t dead, it is just rapidly evolving, and that should make for an interesting Computex.

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