A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Feb 26, 2017

How Tech Is Preparing For the Post-Intel Laptop

The focus, as usual, is on speed, power and cost. Consumers' views of what matters in technology has been largely informed by their relationship with their smartphones. Laptops must follow suit. JL

Dieter Bohn reports in The Verge:

All the action in the processor world is on ARM chips, not Intel’s. ARM does a better job managing power and working with components we expect on a mobile device: cellular modems, gyroscopes, iris scanners. Optimizing those chips for desktop tasks  needs to go deeper than just cranking up the clock speed. Moore’s law may apply to processor performance, it does not apply to consumer assumptions nor to marketing budgets.
When I reviewed the Samsung Chromebook Plus earlier this month, the most surprising thing was how well it performed. It’s based on an ARM System on a Chip (SoC) — and that’s generally a recipe for disappointment when it comes to laptop performance.
Not so with the Chromebook Plus, which managed to handle well over a dozen Chrome tabs before it started breaking a sweat. It isn’t quite up to the tasks that a $1,000 Mac or Chromebook Pixel would be, but it’s also half the price at $450. When I ran the standard Chrome benchmarks on the Plus, it performed better than every ARM Chromebook that’s been released so far — it was very much on par with low and midrange Intel Chromebooks.
It was so good I considered it a kind of mystery — especially since the processor on this laptop is itself mysterious. It’s called the OP1, a name we’ve not yet heard before.
But first, why should we even care that there’s a new chip in town? Well, because it’s an ARM chip that feels like a desktop chip, and that’s potentially a very big deal. Even though this particular Chromebook might not yet be the ARM-based laptop that makes ARM-based laptops supplant Intel, it absolutely points in that direction.
It’s a direction many of us would like to go. On a high level, all the action in the processor world is on ARM chips, not Intel’s. ARM still does a better job managing power and working with the myriad other components we expect on a mobile device: cellular modems, accelerometers, gyroscopes, iris scanners, and lord knows what else that’s coming next. It doesn’t hurt that ARM SoCs tend to be much cheaper than Intel systems, too.


There have also been persistent rumors that Apple is working toward making a Mac that runs on an ARM processor. It certainly makes sense — the A9X SoC on the iPad Pro seems to run circles around the low-power Intel chip in the MacBook. Microsoft is planning on helping manufacturers release ARM-based Windows laptops. And now, as we’ll see, Google is hard at work making ARM better for Chromebooks.
All of these companies have a lot of work to do to fix up the software plumbing that will make ARM laptops viable. Most desktop apps have been designed to run primarily on Intel’s x86 architecture, so it will either take emulation or a massive campaign to get developers to rewrite their apps for ARM — most likely both of those things. Google is working at it from the direction of making Android apps (which run on ARM) better for big screens. Microsoft is working on making Windows apps (most of which run on x86) run on ARM. And though Apple hasn’t shown its hand yet, presumably it will have to pick one of those options.
But fixing up the software isn’t quite enough — ARM SoCs might be getting pretty good, but they still have an earned reputation of being slower than Intel. A lot of work needs to go into optimizing those chips for desktop tasks — and it needs to go deeper than just cranking up the clock speed.


Google Play on a Chromebook Plus Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Which brings us back to the mystery of the Chromebook Plus, the OP1. Solving it is going to take us on a long detour through nerdtown, but I promise we’ll still get where we’re going.
The OP1 is built by Rockchip, which has made ARM processors for a while and isn’t especially well-regarded among US consumers. And, strangely enough, even discovering that Rockchip makes the OP1 took a bit of sleuthing. The company doesn’t have its brand anywhere near the Chromebook Plus. Also, the chip is called the OP1, which implies that there’s going to be an OP2 and OP3 and so on. What exactly is going on here? Just what is OP?
Well! Turns out there’s a website for answering that exact question, helpfully named whatisop.com. OP is a designation for SoCs that are optimized for Chrome OS. Naturally, I assumed it was a Rockchip brand — but that’s not the case at all. And the website ostensibly designed to explain OP to us doesn’t tell us who owns it (and it’s even registered anonymously), so OP strangely mysterious.



Mystery solved: OP is a trademark owned by Google, and bestowed on SoCs that meet a Google spec for a good Chrome OS device. Basically, if a Chromebook has an OP processor, it means that Google certifies that it’s been optimized for Chrome OS.
Which seems straightforward enough, until you realize that Google already collaborates with most Chromebook manufacturers to optimize their systems for Chrome. Google looks at more than just the processor, too. It pays attention to deeper things like the configuration of different cores, the memory bus, and caching. If you’ve wondered why you’re seeing the awkward “SoC” formulation in this story instead of simply “the processor,” that’s why: optimizing a device for an OS is about more than clock speed. Google even expresses its opinion on things like the Wi-Fi radio and display architecture.


Chromebooks with an OP SoC might get a closer look than others, but we won’t really know whether Google gives those devices more attention — nor whether they’ll perform better as a result — until we see more new ARM-based Chromebooks with and without the OP designation.
Google tells me that although it owns the OP trademark, the decision about whether or not to apply it to any given device is a shared decision between the manufacturer and the chip maker — once Google has given the okay. No money trades hands when an OP mark is applied to a device.
Now: why bother with creating a whole new brand if Google is already collaborating with Chromebook makers? It goes back to a couple of threads you may have noticed above, namely: our preconceived notions that, when it comes to laptops, ARM is worse than Intel. And also our preconceived notions that companies like Rockchip and Mediatek are worse than Qualcomm and Samsung.
Those notions are not without merit, but it appears that’s changing — so long as these companies can continue to improve on the excellent performance on the Chromebook Plus. But while Moore’s law may apply to processor performance, it does not apply to consumer assumptions nor to marketing budgets.


Hence: OP. Pit Rockchip with its current reputation and marketing budget against Intel and you know who’s going to win and who’s going to lose. But insofar as OP has a reputation at all, it’s as a Chrome OS-optimized chip. And presumably some Google marketing money (beyond that strange whatisop.com website) could also be a possibility.
With the new OP branding, Rockchip becomes the processor behind the curtain. The battle to convince consumers to take a chance on an ARM laptop gets easier — especially since these ARM laptops run much better than they used to and because Android apps run better on ARM than they do on Intel (for the time being).
If all this sounds a bit like a Nexus program for laptop ARM chips, that’s not too far off. But really what this looks like to me is this: Google is preparing for what seems like an inevitable future where Intel is no longer the dominant player in laptop processors. Microsoft's made a similar move, and it feels like only a matter of time before Apple does something, too.
One last thing, as long as we’re talking about obscure Google trademarks. It recently registered “APPTOP” and “BYE BYE LAPTOP, HELLO APPTOP.” So, um, prepare yourself for that ill-conceived ad campaign.

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