The CPU is dead. Long live the GPU.
When we were planning our approach this year to covering Computex, the largest IT trade show in Asia, there was some confusion about where exactly Intel had gone. No show-floor booth, only one keynote presentation.
At that point there was a sense that maybe this year would be a little flat. The Taipei show has always been a big song and dance around the latest CPUs (central processing units) from Intel and the changes they'll bring to computing in the years ahead.
As it turned out, Computex was fascinating. On day zero, Nvidia and Asus put on a great show that quickly reminded us that the future is moving beyond the CPU, the chip that traditionally has been the brains of the computer. That doesn't mean we're moving beyond the computer itself. The real power driving the coming decade's two big features, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, is more commonly just a GPU-upgrade away. GPUs, or graphics processing units, are particularly adept at manipulating computer graphics and images.
Asus showed off a sleek new range of notebooks, powered by the next generation of Intel processors, coming later this year. But the real showstopper from Asus was Zenbo, the family assistant robot. It aims to use machine-learning technologies to be a true family aide and to get smarter over time. The project is ambitious, maybe too ambitious, but it points to a brand of useful technology that goes beyond running apps while sitting at a desk.
"The GPU is the brains of the computer today," Jen-Hsun Huang, co-founder of Nvidia, said at a media breakfast Monday, the day before the Computex kick-off. "If you look at most of the advances in virtual reality or the advances in artificial intelligence, there is something that is common in both, and that is the GPU."
Everybody has something to sell here, and Huang is selling GPUs. But his sales pitch rings true.
"The last 10 years was the era of mobile cloud," Huang ventures. "This is now the era of AI."
Nvidia has a clarity to its pitch, focusing on what its GPUs are doing that nothing else can right now. The chips have become much more than pure graphics processors, and they can be put to the task of massively multithreaded computation to solve all kinds of problems. Graphics are becoming much more complex as virtual reality demands that highly responsive 360-degree environments be rendered in real time. And computers that feature machine learning and artificial intelligence are largely running based on GPU technologies in large-scale server environments.
Just when we thought Nvidia was stealing the limelight and Asus was stealing the show, AMD revealed that its newest Radeon RX 480 graphics cards would be available for as little as $199. With enough power to deliver "premium VR," the cards should make it affordable for more people to start using the likes of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets at home. Any PC purchased in the past few years could become VR-ready with the purchase of a $199 GPU from AMD.
At confab, VR is a VIP
The show floors of Computex were filled with the buzz of VR. We saw PC demonstrations with clever backpack PCs that help reduce the tethered feeling of room-scale VR. And there were arcade-style experiences that we'll never own in our homes but people will likely pay money for -- wouldn't you want to spend 10 minutes flying like a bird or do the safest parachuting jump around?
PC vendors see VR as the next big driver of PC upgrades. People love VR when they can access it; they just struggle to justify the price this year. As Oculus Rift inventor Palmer Luckey said in late 2015, "VR will become something everyone wants before it becomes something everyone can afford." The prices will come down, but the most critical factor to "Can I use it?" will be the capabilities of the GPU. And as GPUs get better in coming years, so too will the quality of the VR experiences we can enjoy.
Microsoft made some quality announcements with the opening up of its holographic platform to partners. The move is likely to speed up the industry, and it creates another opportunity in the virtual reality versus augmented reality versus "mixed reality" realms. But everything still comes back to the ability of graphics performance to deliver the visual experience we're all hoping for.
When Intel's Navin Shenoy, general manager of the company's Client Computing Group, took to the stage to talk about notebooks and desktops, there was nothing exciting to announce. For those looking for the absolute maximum performance, there were the new 10-core Extreme Edition chips, but when we watched Intel's VR demonstrations on stage, the key component was the GPU.
Intel sees the most critical parts of its future in 5G networks, data centres and the Internet of Things. That's all very important, but it's more a part of the backbone of the future, and with plenty of competition from Qualcomm and ARM.
Nvidia's Huang claims his company can deliver advanced technologies for VR, AI and driverless cars that no one else can deliver. That feels like a pitch for areas in the coming decade that will be far more cutting-edge and futuristic.
We started with a feeling that this year's show might be a little stale. In fact, the confab felt fresher than it had in a long time. The "throwing spaghetti at the wall" approach that I mentioned in my preshow forecast felt more targeted this year.
Before the show, I also wondered whether a shift in dominance from CPU to GPU was signaled by Nvidia's claiming of a ballroom that previously had been used by Intel. After a week in Taipei, I'd venture the answer is a resounding yes.
Check out all the coverage from Computex 2016 in our roundup page from the show.