The competition between the processor powerhouses used to be much like an arms race, with Intel, ARM, AMD or Texas Instruments fiercely competing to get the fastest, most powerful piece of technology out to market before the other.
Power and speed was the only real concern, which drove rapid technological advancement across the PC sector – often to the frustration of consumers, who found their top of the range £2000 desktop had been superseded in a couple of months.
There is still that element of competition at the top end of the industry, of course. However the consumer market for the most powerful PC is usually confined to the gaming sector. While this is profitable, it is niche. Less powerful, more portable computers is the current wonder-sector of the industry.
According to IDC figures, while overall PC sales contracted during the first quarter of 2009, the portable PC market performed ahead of expectation, maintaining growth. This has been chiefly attributed to the rise of the 'mini-notebook' segment and 'additional momentum generated by the telco channel'.
The growing importance of this less powerful, but cheaper and more portable category has meant the technology that drives them is no longer an afterthought, it's an important part of the major chip firms' businesses. And as capabilities of smart phones increase, there is also technological and functional crossover between them and PCs, creating a kind of meta-sector, which together forms a massive market.
"The trend towards slimmer, smaller, lighter devices is continuing, but we're also seeing the emergence of new categories of devices as manufacturers take advantage of increasingly powerful mobile architectures to bring new formats and form factors to market," says Bea Longworth, Nvidia's senior corporate communications manager for EMEAI.
"The current economic climate is pushing consumers towards embracing the convenience and affordability of mobile devices, so there's a great appetite for these smart phones and netbooks which can become people's primary computing devices."
The idea of having netbooks as a primary computer is contrary to what many PC vendor and retailers insist – that those computers should only be used as a supplement to a home PC, which is inevitably more powerful and expensive. However since the new frontier of PC sales are new users, who often only really want to browse the internet and send emails, they are in fact proving adequate primary computers for many people. Alongside this, however, are the greater processing requirements of richer media such as HD video. As the netbook matures, what is emerging is a spectrum of lower priced devices with varying levels of capability, all of which are driven by the processing capability.
"The biggest change is the introduction of a whole new market segment – mini-notebooks and ultra thin notebook processors have in turn reflected this change in complexity," says Andrew Buxton, EMEA channel director for AMD. "Of course we've also seen the constant rise in performance requirements, especially related to multimedia and HD capabilities, as entertainment on the notebook is a key focus area for consumers. As far as netbooks are concerned, it is our belief that users are not satisfied with the level of performance that they are getting on these devices. The ultra-thin platform on the other hand offers good levels of performance and allows users not only to work more efficiently, but also to be entertained, play games and watch high definition movies on HD-capable panels and external monitors."
The creation of these new segments and the evolution of established ones is likely to mean that perceptions will continue to change. "There have been a a couple of big stories in mobile computing over the last twelve months – smart phones and netbooks," says Kris Rodolf, European mobility manager at Intel. "Though smart phones are changing consumer perceptions of what a mobile phone can provide them, from our perspective the biggest shake up in mobile computing has been the launch of the Atom processor. With the Atom and netbooks, more people are getting a good internet experience than ever before. For laptops, the new ultra-low voltage CPUs from Intel mean that ultra-thin laptops are now a mainstream and commonplace reality."
This change in emphasis – away from being mainly concerned with the next most powerful product – has not only helped drive the huge rise in netbooks, but created a wide spectrum of end products with varying capabilities and prices. As top-line research and production continues in these areas, the most likely outcome is yet more segments. However the mainstream consumer base won't be as familiar with the ebbs and flows of the industry as those working within it.
The addition and evolution of computer sectors can add to the problem of erroneous expectations of what a particular PC can actually do. More choice isn't a bad thing for sales or the trade, but it can pose problems. Effectively communicating the differing capabilities, as ever, will be the best way to maximise on the new segments, and not get stung by them.