Our last quarterly special report looked at the PC industry in 2011; this one jumps into the future to discuss where we’ll be in 2015. The complete 6,500 word report is available in PDF and e-book formats, but it’s only for Ars Technica subscribers. Sign up today!
In an earlier report, we surveyed the state of the PC, circa the first quarter of 2011. While not the primary focus of that piece, we also touched on some of the long term trends affecting the future of that cherished platform. In this followup, we take a more forward-looking perspective—what will PC hardware look like in 2015?
Four years is an eternity in the semiconductor and PC industry—companies have been started, grown, and collapsed in less time—so any attempt to look this far is prone to uncertainty. This report therefore doesn't aim for crystalline precision but rather approximate accuracy. Our analysis starts by examining semiconductor manufacturing in 2015, then moves to general integration trends and specific expectations for the three key vendors—AMD, Intel, and Nvidia. Finally, we conclude with a look at the major sub-markets for the PC—client systems, discrete GPUs and servers.
Let’s step into the time machine.
Since the PC ecosystem is so closely tied to the semiconductor industry, it’s a natural first step to examine manufacturing in 2015. Intel’s schedule for process technology is fairly clear; they are still on a two-year cadence and have not expressed any interest in slowing. 22nm will debut at the end of 2011, after which Intel will shift to the so-called ‘half nodes.’ If history is any guide, 14nm will be Intel’s high volume option in 2015, with 10nm coming online at the end of the year.
There’s no doubt that fabs like Global Foundries and TSMC will continue to lag Intel’s manufacturing. Traditionally, the gap has been 12-16 months, but there are strong suggestions that this disparity will widen, rather than narrow, over time. Recent AMD roadmaps indicate that their products will lag a full 2 years behind Intel, with 14nm chips going into production at the end of 2015. Comments from TSMC also suggest a similar time frame for 14nm production.
Taken together, the most likely scenario for 2015 is that Intel will be in high volume production of 14nm chips while the rest of the industry is shipping 20nm products. The density advantage is a given, but performance is unclear. If Intel moves to fully depleted silicon-on-insulator or tri-gate transistors, the performance delta could be substantial. But if Intel continues with a more traditional process, then the difference will be much less pronounced. Either way, this means that chips inside a PC will have roughly 4x the available transistors that they do today, giving architects plenty of room for improvement.