Sunday, January 13, 2013

More cores, more power and still no effective cooling system

I think we really have a problem here. Watching the world of technology, there is a clear tendency to equip mobile devices with more and more power. Looking at the specifications of fleshly unveiled Nvidia Tegra 4 (72 custom Nvidia GeForce GPU cores, new quad-core variant of ARM's Cortex-A15 CPU) I can say I'm already pretty amazed. But this enthusiasm might be suppressed very soon!

Where is the issue? You might say we've already been there few years ago, when multi-cores CPUs were gaining more and more attention from non-professional desktops/notebooks users. Marketing did a great job then. Nobody cared that most of consumers wouldn't be able to use the power of multi-cores. Nobody told them, that powerful CPU in pair with 1 GB of RAM memory and 5.400 RPM hard drive will be a waste of money and power. But it's not the point here.

What matters is the method of heat extraction. Air or water cooling systems are very advanced these days and can be very effective when it comes to PC. So if you really want to use 4 cores CPU for MS Word Editing or Internet browsing on your PC, there is nobody stopping you, apart of your own pocket. But what about mobile phones, tablets or so popular these days ultrabooks? Cooling systems on those devices are really bad. And what makes it even worse, there is no revolution coming. At least not for mobile phones or tablets.

Most of new ultrabooks (equipped with powerful CPUs and dedicated GPU) suffers from so called "throttling", caused by too much heat generated by the CPU and GPU when under heavy load together. Extra thin constructions are not effective when it comes to cooling, because the size of cooling heaps and fans needs to be reduced to minimum. Of course there is some room for improvements. For example, in  new MacBook Pro you can find two fans and quite smart arrangement of cooling pipes. Notebooks/ultrabooks designers surely have more options and more space than mobile phones designers. So I believe this might get better in time.

What's the situation when it comes to mobile phones? As I mentioned before, I think it's really bad. First of all, you can't put any fan inside your phone. The space inside is so limited, so forget about advanced system of micro cooling pipes. So what is the current solution? For example, idea of 5th companion core presented by Nvidia in Tegra 3. When device is in idle state, 5th core is taking care of low level tasks, running at very low frequency. Yes, this is quite smart. Tegra 4 will have the same mechanism. Another example - smart governors. When you turn your screen off, you CPU frequency will be limited to let's say 340 MHz. When turning screen on, it will go back to let's say 1,7 GHz. Nice, huh?

So... wait a minute!

It seems that from one hand we are buying super powerful devices, and from the other hand there are plenty of methods to limit this power. People are happy these days when they can use their super phone for more then 16 hours without charging. They do everything to achieve that - they are limiting GPU power, CPU power, turning off capacitive buttons lights or changing screen backlight to minimum (and they can barely see what's written on the screen). So take a moment, sit on the chair and count - how many times have you actually used the power of your device? Do you really need 4 cores and 2GB of RAM for Gmail, Chrome or Andry Birds? I don't think so. You might say you are playing heavy 3D games. Okay - how long can you play Need For Speed on your device in the bus? I'm pretty sure your device will be discharged after less then 1 hour. So, you might say you can always play it at home, with a device connected to the charger. Personally, when sitting home I prefer playing Need For Speed on PC or notebook.

What's the point in having 4 cores CPU, 2GB RAM and 72 custom Nvidia GeForce GPU cores if you can't use it? In idle this will be limited to 1 hidden core running something like 70 MHz. When using the phone for daily tasks (photos, internet, mail, calling) it will use about 20% of the potential power. When playing games it might use the full power for some period of time, then will be down-clocked because of generated heat. Is it comfortable to hold a device in your hand that have a temperature of 59 °C? I don't think so...
Of course there is a matter of reducing the size of the chipsets. Newer production processes mean lower power consumption. But this wont help.

So is it a right and good direction, when a companies are making more and more powerful hardware, trying to figure out better and more effective way to limit this power at the same time? It's like putting in and out. And all for the money from customers.

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