On Tuesday 18th January, Intel hosted a media and retailer launch in Sydney to demonstrate their new processor range, the second generation of the Core Processor Family, commonly known as Sandy Bridge. Special overseas guest and Intel evangelist Mooly Eden revealed to the audience how processor development is changing within Intel, delivering his presentation with humour and enthusiasm. It’s a fairly dry subject, but Mooly managed to steer clear of too many specs and statistics and focus on the practical benefits that he and Intel believes the new range will deliver.
As a retail technology buyer, it was a great opportunity to gain some insight into the company whose name adorns millions of notebooks and desktops worldwide, yet remains hidden deep inside those products. The physical Intel product can only be imagined as a concept; it is what the platform enables us to do as users, that has secured its success as a microprocessor manufacturer.
On a global scale, some of the statistics Mooly quoted are mind-boggling. One million PCs are shipped everyday around the world. The new processors carry 1.16 Billion transistors on each chip. From a user perspective, there are 2 billion internet users around the world, 240 billion emails sent per day, 2 billion videos viewed daily, and 2.5 billion images uploaded to Facebook per month. These usage figures are the ones that have brought into focus Intel’s challenge – to meet the demands of how we interact with our PC on a daily basis, which is far removed from our behaviour only a few years ago.
PCs have indeed shifted from being a desktop in a room that everyone shared, to being a completely personal device that is used to socialise and communicate online. As more educated consumers, we have all progressed from looking at and comparing specs before purchasing a PC, to now judging whether that product would enhance the experience of what we would normally use a computer for – in other words, seeking out the practical benefits rather than checking out what’s under the hood.
At this launch, the issue of content creation versus consumption was raised, and I think it highlights one of the biggest challenges to chip makers. Most of us think that when we are moving our movies and music to a portable device, or uploading new photo albums to our Facebook account, it all falls under the umbrella of “consumption” – it’s all being moved around to be shared and enjoyed. Nothing is being “created” as far as the user is concerned.
However, from a PC perspective there is PLENTY going on. Every time a video moves from a PC to a portable device it needs to be “transcoded”, or changed from one format to another. This requires not only a high speed, reliable link between devices but also sheer processing power to alter the file into a format best suited to the device it’s being transferred to. Likewise with photos uploaded to Flickr or Facebook, the images need to be compressed without major quality loss before uploading. All of this is “creation” – creating a new file to fit the requirements of a new device or online destination.
Yet, the expectation of any user, myself included, is that those activities should “just happen”. So behind the scenes, Intel is working to a new paradigm – determine the ideal user experience, understand the environment in which it’s happening and deliver hardware that can cope with those demands.
Quick Sync is a good example of supporting user behaviour. It’s basically a transcoding feature that speeds up the compression much quicker than any hardware before it. And because the HD graphics engine is on the same chip, Intel claim there is no need for a dedicated graphics card unless you’re a hardcore gamer or high definition video editor. The demo certainly was impressive, more so as it was without discreet graphics hardware. To drive the point home, some high resolution rendering and bulk-photo red-eye removal processes were demonstrated and were amazingly quick.
Mooly introduced the PC Theft Defence Service, which in simple terms assists in rendering a notebook useless if it was stolen and then connected to the internet by the thief – the user would be able to send a “suicide pill” which the notebook would pick up online and self-destruct. He also showed off a new game, Portal 2, which used motion-sensing equipment to navigate and control a third person shooter.
I was impressed with the avatar demonstration that replaced a person’s real face with a new, animated one – one which could be changed by choice. The point of the demo was to show what could be achieved with the new processors, and where man-machine interfaces may evolve.
The final announcement of the night was a new entertainment feature called “Intel Insider”, which allows full HD movies to be streamed if it detects the new Intel processors in the PC. Because the new Intel Core range uses encryption technology, some movie studios are warming to the idea of releasing full high definition digital versions of its movies – for a price of course. This represents a new distribution opportunity for an industry beset by piracy and illegal downloading.
There are two sides to this from a user perspective. Firstly, it does open new markets for film studios to deliver movies in high quality without fear of the file being copied and distributed via torrents and P2P networks. iTunes has proven that people will pay for content when it’s easy to access, manage and enjoy. The flip side is this is the first time a component company, as opposed to a software company, has joined forces with movie studios, and the fear voiced in the room during question time revolved around Intel’s ability to determine what can be watched – if the chip can be used to access content, could it also be used to prevent certain files to be played? An interesting take, but probably not the conspiracy theory some hope for. Movie studios might yet embrace digital distribution on a larger scale, and this is one step towards opening up that comfort zone for the normally paranoid and protective film companies.
Of course, high definition streaming is one thing, but being able to watch it on a big screen is another. WiDi, which is an Intel feature enabling wireless streaming from a notebook to a flat panel screen, has been improved to 1080p streaming. This works in well with the full HD movie streaming offer. Content will be streamed from a content provider to the notebook, which will then push the content onto suitable televisions. This provides an opportunity for film studios, notebook makers and television brands to work with retailers to come up with a bundled offer that makes it easy for the customer to understand and use all the benefits that Sandy Bridge promises to deliver.
There was a lot to absorb at the Intel Sandy Bridge launch, and the overall feeling I had was that Intel are reaching out to customers more than ever, bridging that gap between what the geniuses at the Intel labs think up in the theoretical world and what users are demanding in the real world. We’re looking forward to chatting to Intel in the near future to discuss their strategy in more detail.
Cheers until next time!