With 2011 drawing to a close, it's time to look forward to the technological delights heading our way courtesy of the most resilient and consistent innovative computing platform of them all, the trusty old PC.
This time last year, we got it right on Intel's Sandy Bridge and a relatively stagnant year for PC graphics, were let down by AMD's Bulldozer and jumped the gun on tablets and apps.
For 2012, it's looking like the roles are set to reverse for CPUs and GPUs, laptops PCs are going to be better than ever and the tablets will finally make the mainstream. No really, this time it's true.
Not a vintage year for CPUs
The great hope for the end of 2011 and in turn 2012 and onwards was the arrival of AMD's long awaited – almost mythical - Bulldozer chip, otherwise known as the AMD FX processor. It duly arrived and utterly disappointed.
Not long after, Intel unleashed its latest high chip, the Core i7-3960X, and our worst fears were confirmed. Without any competition at the high end, Intel is taking its foot off the gas. The Core i7-3960X is the fastest PC processor on the planet. But it's only a little quicker than Intel's existing Core i7-990X. More to the point, it could have been much faster. Intel has switched off two of the cores.
Intel says that was always the plan. But we've little doubt things would have been different had Bulldozer presented a stiffer challenge. Anyhow, the prospects for a big leap in high end CPU performance in 2012 are pretty much zero.
At first glance, things don't look much better back in the mainstream. Details of Intel's upcoming Ivy Bridge generation of 22nm CPUs have been trickling out. The bad news is that neither core count nor clocks are due for a big change. Four cores remains your lot and clock speeds will top out at 3.5GHz nominally and 3.9GHz with a little Turbo action.
However, the shrink to 22nm will also bring a much more powerful integrated graphics core. If nothing else, that should mean Intel's QuickSync video encode engine gets an upgrade and that should mean insanely quick encode times.
As for AMD, well, we can't see anything too exciting on the horizon for desktop PCs. It'll be all about pricing its new Bulldozer processors to make them as competitive as possible.
If processor power isn't on the up, at least 2012 should be a good year for graphics. AMD's Radeon HD 6 Series GPUs haven't exactly set the world alight. But we're just days away from dishing the dirt on the new 7 Series and it looks very promising indeed.
Admittedly, AMD's new high-end GPU won't be cheap. But it will put downward pressure on the prices of run out 6 Series boards in the first half of 2012. As more affordable 7 Series cards come on steam, your bang for buck will only improve.
Ultrabooks are coming
Grudgingly we must concede that while Apple perhaps didn't invent the ultra-slim, ultra-light notebook computer, it did establish it as the next big in laptop computing. But like so many Apple products, the MacBook Air has never been particularly affordable until relatively recently. But it's still a Mac.
The good news is that 2012 should see the arrival of whole armies of MacBook Air trampling Ultrabooks from the big names in PC manufacturing. Te Ultrabook is an Intel concoction and the idea behind it isn't terribly radical. At its simplest, it's a thin and light laptop PC with solid state storage.
But as prices for SSDs come down and advances in chip manufacturing make desktop performance possible in ultra-compact form factors while extending battery life towards the al-day ideal, the ultrabook adds the final ingredient to the recipe Apple has been simmering with the Air. Affordability.
Intel wants Ultrabooks to top out at $1,000. In the UK that's means something around £800. That's slightly less than the £849 starting price of the Apple MacBook Air. It's also much cheaper than current high-performance thin and light systems such as the Sony Z. For an idea of what an Ultrabook looks like, check out Asus's delightful Zenbook UX21 .
Of course, Intel's major contribution to the Ultrabook sector in 2012 will be mobile processors from the upcoming 22nm Ivy Bridge family. These won't have a huge impact in terms of performance. But at a given performance point, they'll put the kybosh on both prices and power consumption.
By the end of 2012, you'll be able to choose from a wide range of superlight, relatively highperformance laptop PCs that go all day on a single charge and delivering a computing experience that's indistinguishable from most desktop PCs.
Windows 8 makes the PC tablet-friendly
The tablet PC is the idea that just won't die. In fact, last year we prgonosticated 2011 could be the tablet transition happened, what with Intel's Atom maturing and Apple's iPad 2 pushing the basic tablet concept into the mainstream.
Needless to say, it didn't happen. Is there any reason to think 2012 will be any different? Yes, actually, there is. Microsoft is finally taking mobile platforms seriously and the next release of Windows will include a proper touch interface, not the feeble, half baked efforts we've seen up to and including Windows 7.
If that sounds like a familiar refrain involving promises from Microsoft that never make the transition into reality, may we point you in the direction of Windows Phone and its cutting edge Metro UI. This tile-based interface forms the starting point for Windows 8's tablet edition and it's on another level to anything Microsoft has previously achieved. It even makes Apple's iOS look a little old and crusty.
ARM vs x86
Of course, the arrival of Windows 8 also presages the emergence of an even biger question for the future of the PC. Can it survive death by a thousand cuts from a swarm of ARM-powered chips and devices. Moreover, can a PC be a PC without an x86 processor?
The issue here is the arrival of the first version of Windows with support for ARM rather than x86 processors. It would be a bold prediction to suggest Windows on ARM was going to be the next best thing. But it does add to the general momentum towards a blurring between conventional x86 PCs and ultra mobile ARM-powered devices.
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