It's been a fine year for the PC in 2010. But what technological devilry can you expect for 2011?
Faster, cheaper, smaller, funkier – all these are annual givens for the PC every year. But 2011 will bring much more than the usual incremental gains.
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The very identity of the PC looks set to shift and blur with new form factors, shapes and sizes. The way we interact PCs could well be revolutionised thanks to touch and context-aware interfaces.
It could be all change for the software part of the PC equation, too, as the app-store paradigm arrives, cloud computing really kicks off and the explosive growth of social networking continues. The PC may be an old dog. But it's got plenty of new tricks lined up for 2011.
Let's start with some key hardware upgrades. In terms of classic computer chips, the first big noise in 2011 will be Intel's new Sandy Bridge processors. Intel has made huge advances in recent years with its PC processors. So, you might think it hard to believe there's much more performance to be found.
But found it Intel most surely has. Unfortunately, we're sworn to secrecy until early January regarding many of the details of Intel's latest PC processor architecture.
However, what we can say is that the combination of a revised CPU architecture along with massively improved integrated graphics and novel features like the hardware video transcoder make for a compelling package. If you're a PC enthusiast, Sandy Bridge is going to blow your mind.
All about AMD
As for AMD, Intel's main competitor in the CPU game, 2011 is will be a make or break year. AMD will roll out its own new processor architecture, known as Bulldozer. In basic architectural terms, Bulldozer looks even more revolutionary than Intel's new Sandy Bridge.
In fact, with Bulldozer AMD has done away with the conventional notion of CPU cores and created a much more modular chip designed to deliver a better balance of integer and floating point performance. If Bulldozer manages to even to close the gap significantly to Intel's Sandy Bridge, that will be some achievement. Beating Sandy Bridge outright is almost too much to ask for.
The game is up for graphics
As for PC graphics, 2011 could prove a tricky year. The first problem is the aforementioned Intel Sandy Bridge architecture. Its hardware video transcoder threatens to kill the concept of running non-graphics software on 3D chips, so-called GPGPU applications, before it's had a chance to take off.
Similarly, Sandy Bridge's much improved integrated graphics core is a reminder that the days of the discrete 3D chips are numbered and the rise of fusion processors with the CPU and GPU in one chip will continue. At the same time, both AMD and Nvidia could be held back by production problems at TSMC.
That's the Taiwanese chip foundry that makes most of the world's PC graphics chips. Both AMD and Nvidia will release powerful new graphics processors in 2011. But these could well be among the last of a dying breed.
Tablets, tablets, tablets
On a more upbeat note, could the PC benefit from the deluge of tablet computers expected in 2011? The majority tablet designs are likely to be based on ultramobile operating systems such as Google's Android and powered by ARM-derived processors. In that sense, they will be more overgrown smartphones than small PCs.
However, there will certainly be some tablet designs using Intel's x86 Atom CPU and some of those will be running Windows 7 or a derivative of Windows 7. It's just possible Microsoft might launch an all new tablet-specific operating system, too. However it plays out with tablet computers, the PC will have an important role to play.
Could touch be the next big thing in computer interfaces? If touch screen PCs don't begin to make inroads in 2011, it may never happen. On the plus side, touch-powered tablet technology will inevitably spill over over into the PC. On the other hand, the good old keyboard and mouse is unlikely to be usurped by touch when it comes to serious content creation.
Apps on the up
Whether its mobile phones, tablets or even HDTVs, everyone wants into apps. Why not the PC? Actually, it's already happening. Intel's AppUp store has been online since September. OK, it mainly aimed at netbook PCs. But it's fully compatible with full power laptop and desktop systems running Windows 7.
Of course, you could argue that the PC already has the largest ecosystem of applications of any computing platform by a galactic mile. That's absolutely true. But traditional PC apps are clunky compared to the slick, clever and user friendly apps people are enjoy with their smartphones.
Microsoft recently launched the Games for Windows Marketplace online store. What's more, it's rumoured that Microsoft's next major operating system, currently known as Windows 8, will include a full App Store as standard. As we all know, one of the key elements for a healthy app store is a big user base. They don't come any bigger than Windows PCs.
Admittedly, Windows 8 isn't expected to arrive until 2012. But 2011 is still likely to see the emergence of the smartphone app-store as a new paradigm for PC software.
Cloud and context-aware computing
Another area where smartphone trends look set to influence PCs is cloud computing. By that we mean both applications in the form of services like Windows Live and Google Docs and also greater integration of social networking media.
It's difficult to predict exactly how this will unfold. But the general trend will be away from heavy application installs and towards browser-based computing, remote storage of media and data and more seamless integration of social media and user content across platforms. From your phone to your PC, in other words.
Context-aware computing is further smartphone-related trend that might hit the big time in 2011. Today's smartphone's have several context-generating interfaces including light sensors and GPS navigation. Expect to see PCs take a leaf out of this book with proximity sensors, ambient light sensors and perhaps facial recognition. Simply sit down in front of your PC and it will turn on, recognise your face and log you into both your local user account and various online profiles.
Combine that capability with cloud computing and you have the possibility to sit in front of any PC and be presented with a familiar computing environment complete with all your personal files. Admittedly, it's unlikely we'll see such a refined solution in 2011. But the beginnings of this kind of ubiquitous computing platform will certainly be visible.
Bits and PCs
Elsewhere, PCs will benefit from faster file transfers thanks to bigger, cheaper and quicker SSDs, the increased uptake of SATA 6Gbps and widely available USB 3.0 peripherals. We're also hopeful the a recent trend for affordable POC monitors based on superior VA panel technology will take off in 2011.
Meanwhile, the ongoing trend towards mobile platforms will continue. Laptops and netbooks just keep getting more popular. At the same time, all-in-one desktop systems could finally break out of their niche, especially if they offer features typically not found in conventional systems such as touch screens, sensors and integrated services. All of which means 2011 will probably be a big year for almost every kind of PC except the traditional tower system that started it all.