May 212011

Only a month or two after it was published, a detailed report that I wrote was wiped out during a BrightSideOfNews* hard drive crash. That exhaustive report, praised by many throughout the industry as the finest of its kind yet produced, examined the emerging and inevitable ARM versus x86 clash.

It took a little while and cost BSN* a lot of money to recover the data on the hard drive, but that report is now back up and can be read here.

I’m currently working on a followup to that bit of analysis that will include even more hardware than the initial report.  I’m still waiting on a vendor or two, so I can’t promise an ETA yet, but one thing I can state is that the new report will be very interesting.

The computing landscape is changing rapidly and the war between x86 and ARM microprocessors is now underway.  The competitors have dramatically different strengths and weakness, making for a particularly exciting confrontation.

Most importantly, the results of this war will have profound effects well beyond the CPU market, where several companies will possibly see their fortunes upended.  One thing is absolutely certain: computing will never be the same again.

Jul 092010

For many people, Apple Computer’s co-founder, Steve Jobs, exists on a higher plane than the one mere mortals occupy. It’s a peculiarity of our modern world that a gadget designer can find himself at the center of a personality cult.

Certainly, Steve Jobs’ uncompromising direction has played a huge role in Apple’s success.  However, out of necessity, Apple employees take a more pragmatic view of the world’s most famous Steve.

The collective company lore, primarily involving Mr. Jobs, is often passed down to new Apple initiates through a series of tales.  One such bit of verbal history unfolds as follows.

A young man entered an elevator at Apple’s 1 Infinite Loop headquarters located smack in the middle of California’s Silicon Valley.  Satisfied after waiting a few seconds that no one else was boarding, he pressed the button for the first floor.  Just before the elevator closed completely, a hand sliced through the narrowing gap, activating the infrared switches and separating the metal doors like Moses parting the Red Sea.  In stepped a purposeful man wearing a black St. Croix turtleneck, Levi 501 blue jeans and a pair of New Balance sneakers.  Preoccupied with thoughts of returning home after a hard day’s work, it took the young man a few seconds to realize that the older man standing next to him, alone in the descending elevator, was the iconic Steve Jobs.

Clearing his throat and attempting to be friendly, the young man chirped a common salutation.  “Hi, Mr. Jobs, how are you,” he queried in a quivering voice sounding about an octave higher than normal.  After a few awkward seconds of silence elapsed, the young man continued, “It’s a beautiful day today, isn’t it?’

Seeming slightly perturbed, the fruity messiah shot back, “So what have you done for Apple lately?’

Temporarily flummoxed by how his innocent elevator ride suddenly turned into a confrontation with one of the world’s most influential businessmen, the young man became distraught and distracted by how his own body could issue forth what seemed like a bucket of sweat instantaneously.  As the elevator bell dinged their arrival on the first floor, the young man suddenly stammered, “Well, I bought an iPod for my little daughter a couple of months ago.”  Smiling meekly at his quick thinking, he attempted to step towards the opening doors but was blocked by the spry Apple president.

Greatly feared throughout his Apple kingdom for his merciless, mercurial temper, Steve Jobs vibrated with anger while his face reddened to a ripe Macintosh hue.  Blood veins began to swell in his neck and forehead as if Mr. Jobs were transforming into a crimson Hulk.

Suddenly and inevitably Steve Jobs erupted, “Is that it? Is that the best thing you can come up with?”

The young man began to quickly realize that he was not handling this encounter well.  The small drop of aerosolized, Jobsian spittle landing in his right eye, blurring his vision slightly, was particularly distracting.

“Yes, I think so,” the young man embarrassingly admitted as he managed to maneuver around the increasingly irate CEO and into the lobby.

“Well, you’re fired!” Jobs shouted, halting the young man in his tracks.  Stepping out towards the young man, Jobs continued, “Go pack up all of your stuff and leave,” he said pointing towards the elevator.

“But you can’t fire me,” the young man insisted.

“Do you know who I am?  I’m Steve Jobs!  I run this company and I can fire anyone I want,” the Apple executive screamed.

“But you can’t fire me,” the young man asserted as a spirit of calmness began to fill him.

“Look, I don’t know who you are, but no one around here is too important to fire besides me,” Steve Jobs angrily asserted, “And you’re fired!”

“No, I’m not,” the young man retorted matter-of-factly.

Now only inches away from the young man’s face, Steve Jobs screamed, “And why not?”

The young man reached into his back pocket and pulled out a wallet.  Opening it, he pointed to an item held inside a clear, plastic flap.  “Because I don’t work here,” the young man stated quietly as he extracted his business card, “I was just here to fix a copier on the fourth floor.”

Apr 132010

BSN* has posted another of my articles. In it, I compare iPad browsing performance against an Intel Atom N450 netbook using the four most popular web browsers. While the Atom-based systems pretty much trounces the iPad except when using Microsoft Internet Explorer 8. IE8 on the Atom makes the iPad look fast.

Additionally, Opera 10.51 beats all comers.

Major kudos are also in order for Opera. Already a big player in the mobile browser market, Opera 10.51 manhandled the competition across all three benchmarks. Safari and Chrome finished a distant second and third respectively. Firefox 3.6.3 kept pace with those two except on the quirky Google V8 benchmark where it stumbled badly.

Apr 082010

The popular technology website Bright Side of News* has published an in-depth report I authored comparing an ARM Cortex-A8 microprocessor, used in the Apple iPad’s A4 chip, against a trifecta of x86 CPUs typically found in netbooks, small notebooks and embedded devices.  My report particularly focuses on compute performance.

A major component of that comparison is miniBench, an open source benchmark that I wrote in C++.  I ported miniBench to Linux for both ARM and x86 platforms enabling, for the first time, objective, head-to-head performance comparisons across a wide range of meaningful tests like Dhrystone, Whetstone, FFT, LinPack, MFLOPS, AES, SHA1, SHA256 and many others.

While I worked as head of benchmarking for Centaur Technology, we used miniBench to help isolate performance problems in our microprocessors so that we could optimize out the weakest attributes of our chip designs.

In the BSN* report, I also compare performance across a number of popular JavaScript benchmarks and a few other native tests.

The results surprised me.  It is also worth examinig the relative compute performance between the new Intel Atom N450, the new VIA Nano L3050 and an old AMD Mobile Athlon based upon the Barton core.

You can read my full report here.

I noticed that Theo generously gave me credit for the recall of the 1.13GHz Intel Pentium III.  I want to make it clear that Tom Pabst discovered the speed path defect that manifested when he was trying to compile the Linux kernel.  My part in the recall was representing Tom’s Hardware at Intel.  The representative for the giant chipmaker initially laughed at the issue until I threatened him with an united call to yank the defective part involving a number of major computer hardware ethusiast websites.

Jan 282010

Apple introduced its greatly anticipated tablet computer, the iPad, yesterday.  It was impossible for the product to meet the unbelievable hype surrounding the computer’s debut, but even taking this into account, the reaction to the device, which will not ship for months, has been mostly negative.  Critics point out the iPad’s lack of multitasking, the low resolution XGA 4:3 screen, the clunky aesthetics (very unusual for Jobs-ian Apple), the lack of standard ports, no support for Adobe Flash, the high price compared with more capable netbooks and the awkward “iPad” moniker.

But few if any observers have mentioned that the iPad is probably very underpowered compared with much cheaper netbooks.

The Apple iPad uses a custom, 1GHz Apple A4 system-on-chip (SoC).  While details are lacking, the microprocessor is probably either the ARM Cortex-A8 (a superscalar design a little like the Intel Atom, but sans HyperThreading) or Cortex-A9 (an out-of-order superscalar design superficially analogous to the VIA Nano).  If that is the case, this explains why Apple chose to forgo multitasking because ARM chips are very slow.

ARM has been very successful at avoiding direct, objective performance comparisons of their chips with x86 counterparts.  However, I’ve been able to test an 800MHz ARM Cortex-A8 running Ubuntu Linux and compare its results to an 800MHz AMD Mobile Athlon and a VIA Nano L3050 downclocked to 800MHz.  The x86 systems ran the same version of Ubuntu Linux as the ARM box.

While the Nano and the Athlon are close to performance parity with each other, the ARM Cortex-A8 is less than one-half as fast as either x86 chip.  Moreover, the ARM CPU is much weaker on floating point calculations, providing lower that 25% of the performance of either x86 chip.

Worse, the ARM system frequently becomes unresponsive for several seconds at a time.  And even though I only ran the ARM system at 16-bit XGA resolution while the x86 systems ran at 24-bit 1080p resolutions, both x86 systems trounced the video performance of the ARM box.

After using the ARM Cortex-A8 Ubuntu system, it is safe to say that people migrating from x86 netbooks (which typically use 1.3-1.6GHz x86 processors) — or, heaven forbid, thin-and-light notebooks — will be very disappointed with the performance compromises they will encounter from stepping down to ARM.

So if Apple is deploying a 1GHz ARM Cortex-A8 in the iPad, overall performance will be worse than a 500MHz x86 chip — sometimes much worse.  And that level of performance won’t make many people happy.  For Apple’s sake, if the company is indeed using an ARM design in its iPad, let’s hope that they at least chose a multi-core Cortex-A9.  BSN* confidently claims that this is indeed the case.

I’m trying to get my hands on an ARM Cortex-A9 system.  The Cortex-A9 will boost performance over the A8 because it adds an Out-of-Order engine which reduces pipeline stalls.  However, I expect a 1GHz Cortex-A9 to be no faster than a 600-650MHz x86 counterpart at best.

These results don’t surprise me because several years ago when I was working at Centaur I compared the performance of an Intel XScale chip against a VIA C7.  The C7 creamed the XScale even though the ARM chip ran at a slightly higher clock speed.

I’m convinced Intel sold off XScale to Marvell because the chipmaker recognized that this performance deficit would be untenable once ARM chips inevitably began competing with x86 designs.  Of course, Intel’s response was to create the highly successful Atom.

I’m trying to get permission to publish the ARM Cortex-A8 results.  Check back in a few days if you are interested.

ARM CPUs certainly have their strengths, but raw performance is not one of them.  They will face very stiff competition as they go head-to-head with much more powerful x86 designs.