IT HAS BEEN A RELATIVELY INTERESTING YEAR in the world of chips, but not exactly an exciting one.
If we ignore the problems thrown up by Meltdown and Spectre, there's been a fair bit going on with processors and SoCs in 2018, some more noteworthy than others.
AMD took the covers off off its second-generation Ryzen processors based on the Zen architecture, built upon the success of the first-gen chips that for the first time in bloody ages looked to challenge Intel.
Silicon slices like the Ryzen 7 2700X and Ryzen 5 2600X were found to support speeds up to 5.8GHz when overclocked by some serious processor pushers who made liberal use of liquid nitrogen cooling. Those types of speeds aren't exactly achievable by all, but when the Ryzen 7 2700X already hits a healthy 4.3GHz out of the box, it's not exactly a slow CPU to begin with.
As such, AMD debuted a second set of processors that could properly stand up to Intel's Core eighth-gen Core lineup, though the new Ryzens were more of a step up on their predecessors rather than the revolution the first Ryzen chips were for reinvigorating AMD.
Speaking of Core processors, Intel continued to update its eighth-generation Core line up this year, moving from the Kaby Lake R architecture to the first-generation Coffee Lake designs.
While not exactly breaking any boundaries for Intel's underlying architecture, given it's been stuck on the 14-nanometre fabrication process for some time, the refresh brought in six-core dies for the Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs and doubled the Core i3's cores from two to four.
For apps and workloads that can tap into multi-threaded processing, more cores is a boon, but while Coffee Lake delivered a bit more performance and efficiency it was hardly a mega step up from Kaby Lake.
Having said that, it's nice to see that eighth-generation mobile Core chips now sport quad-core configurations that can boost up to 4.5GHz, at least with the 'U-series'; previous Kaby Lake R eighth-gen U-series Core chips couldn't deliver quite as much clock speed oomph, despite offering quad-core configurations.
Intel then debuted it's Coffee Lake refresh with ninth-generation Core processors. Again this was an evolution of the 14nm process Intel has been using for a while.
The refresh boosted the core count of the Core i7 to eight cores and offers more performance but isn't exactly a revolution over previous processors.
That step up will come with Intel's Sunny Cove chips, which it revealed just as 2018 starts to wave goodbye. We know very little about the chips but they promise to finally bring 10nm processors to the Core CPU line up, which should deliver a good step up in performance from Coffee Lake chips.
Speaking of architecture changes, AMD will bring its Zen 2 design to the market next year in the form of third-generation Ryzen chips. Zen 2 will see AMD make the jump to the 7nm process node, which should deliver processors with large dollops of power and decent efficiency at the same time.
AMD's Navi graphics architecture is also set to make an appearance next year, and will also tap into the 7nm fabrication process. That will be needed as aside from getting its Polaris GPU architecture down to a 12nm process with the Radeon RX 590, AMD's graphics game for 2018 hasn't really been stellar.
While Team Red worked to squeeze out as much as possible from Polaris, Nvidia went and revealed the Turing architecture, promising real-time ray-tracing in single slot graphics cards.
And Team Green achieved that... kinda. The high-end GeForce RTX 2080 Ti, RTX 2080, and RTX 2070 all have some slick ray-tracing capabilities as well as some deep learning smarts to improve pixel polishing. But they are expensive and ray-tracing is hardly mainstream at the moment. Coupled with the performance hit it appears to give most games, we suspect not many people will buy the GeForce RTX cards for ray-tracing alone.
Still, the Turing architecture that underpins the graphics cards and chips is impressive and shows how Nvidia really likes to push graphics tech, paving the way for a time when ray-tracing will be more popular.
In the mobile chips segment, there was some petty interesting silicon work going on. The first was Huawei's reveal of the Kirin 980, a 7nm SoC that delivers a serious dose of mobile performance coupled with facilitating all manner of AI smarts.
Apple also decided to show that it can make mobile chips with the best of them, revealing the A12 Bionic in the iPhone XS. The A11 chip in the iPhone X was no slouch, but the A12 Bionic really showed off Apple's aptitude for making custom chips based on ARM instruction sets.
We took more of a deep dive into the A12 Bionic at the time, but the SoC remains impressive offering blisteringly quick processors and graphics performance and a suite of smart capabilities. The A12X Bionic was then shown off and popped into the new 11in and 12in iPad Pro models, promising power that can rival a lot of full-fat laptop processors.
The only problem with the A12 Bionic SoCs is how many developers will really work to tap into the chips' full potential; we can't help feel there's a lot of power on tap that people aren't yet making use of.
Arguably, the most exciting mobile chip of 2018 is the Snapdragon 855. At first glance, it looks like a mere upgrade on the Snapdragon 845, but dig a little deeper and you'll find it has a lot more to offer.
It's claimed to be the world's first SoC with an image signal processor that has computer vision built in to facilitate sharper smarter photography chops, and it also comes packing Qualcomm's latest AI Engine to add more smarts onboard upcoming Android phones.
But the real noteworthy feature is it'll likely be the first mainstream mobile SoC that'll tout 5G connectivity, thanks to the use of the Snapdragon X50 modem chip.
With the promised rollout of 5G next year in select UK cities and a suite of next-generation Android phones making use of the Snapdragon 855, the chipset will really help drag 5G from being something just on the horizon to a new level of mobile broadband that people will actually be able to harness, providing they have deep enough pockets to afford a flagship Android smartphone. Either way, the Snapdragon 855 could be a bit of a game changer.
And that's about it for chips in 2018. The mobile segment probably saw the most interesting developments, but moments in desktop chips this year promise impressive slices of silicon for 2019. As ever we'll be watching and waiting. µ
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